Under a sunless frozen sky, a middle-aged schizophrenic calls her dyspeptic mother from a pay phone a block from the mother’s home. In a bedroom in a comfortable home, father is dead, mother is absent and a blackhearted young man is planning to do unspeakable things to his little brother. Along the stygian river that runs through town, a massive roughhewn dockworker cries out for the love he cannot find and couldn’t handle if he did find it. Everywhere, high drama is about to be informed by high art. Ladies and gentlemen, Theater Alliance is back.
For those who feared that Jeremy Skidmore’s departure asArtistic Director, followed as it was by an extended hiatus by the company from the world of drama, meant that Theater Alliance had abandoned its commitment to difficult, high-concept theater realized through superb acting, worry no further. The Bread of Winter is in the tradition of [Sic], Mary’s Wedding, You Are Here, Headsman’s Holiday, Gross Indecencies, and Ambition Facing West, and is every bit as good as those plays.
The Bread of Winter is a story about loneliness. In it, Libby (Amy McWilliams) is a schizophrenic who, unless she takes her soul-deadening medication, hears voices which hurl her inadequacies at her. She has lost her job as a housekeeper in a horror of a home because the mother, in one of her rare appearances, found Libby in a fugue state. Fruitlessly, she seeks comfort from her own hard-headed mother Gert (Rosemary Regan), who does not understand Libby’s illness but hates the effect it has had on her. Libby misses her paycheck, of course, but misses Gregory (William Beech), the younger of the absent mother’s two children, even more. Unbeknownst to her, Gregory, who seems about thirteen, is being molested by his brother Richard (Ben Kingsland), who is perhaps two years older. On her way back from her mother’s, Libby picks up Jack, a dockworker (Richard Pelzman), and invites him home for dinner. After a few dates, they stand on the threshold of physical love. But, although they are at a stage where sex serves as a defense against death, darkness and loneliness prevail. Jack manages to talk Libby out of her bra. You will be astonished at what happens next.
Hanging over it all is the black frozen sky. It is not clear whether the failure of human love has driven the sun away or whether the causes are reversed, but it’s gone, and the denizens of this sad world shiver, cold and terrified, in the dark. Gert cannot distinguish between a hug and an assault, and Richard’s brutal batteries are the only way he can express his love of and need for his brother. They all stagger sleep-deprived through the perpetual night, dreaming sketchily of death by drowning and waking up into a nightmare. At the end, there is an act which might restore the sun to the sky, but I don’t know if it does.
It would serve no purpose to further describe the plot of this character-driven play. Victor Lodato writes with great economy of expression, and with an unerring eye for compelling dramatic choices. His script is remarkable for two things beyond its high quality. First, the characters accept the incredible circumstances of the world of the play in a completely plausible manner. Secondly, although there are no sophisticated, articulate adults in the play, there is not a single false or condescending word. Lodato invites us to love his characters, who cannot love themselves.
The superb cast fills this production with dramatic electricity. Libby, even when she is not afflicted with her hallucinations, is a simple soul who is easily defeated by life. McWilliams makes her a real person, neither comic nor cloying. Regan makes Gert an angry, bitter woman who tries to love and be understanding; when she gives up the effort, it is like watching someone take off a pair of shoes two sizes too small. I love what Pelzman does with Jack, showing us the frustrated child behind the mask of formidable maturity. And Beech continues the good work he did in Ace, playing a kid turned near catatonic by his daily miseries.
In this excellent cast, though, it is Kingsland who is truly remarkable. His Richard is a sneering predatory manipulator who preys on the weak, but as the story proceeds we discover that no one is weaker than he. Kingsland’s ability to meld these two elements of Richard’s character is the mark of an actor who is in control of his material, and a harbinger of great things to come.
The Bread of Winter
Written by: Victor Lodato
Directed by: Dorothy Neumann
Produced by: Theater Alliance
Reviewed by: Tim Treanor
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