'Bread of Winter': Bleak but Filling

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Environmental blight eats away at the planet -- and some spiritual equivalent has started gnawing at the human heart. Such is the future that up-and-coming writer Victor Lodato conjures in his mysterious and chilling drama "The Bread of Winter," receiving its world premiere from Theater Alliance.

Directed with tonal precision by Dorothy Neumann and featuring five vivid performances, "Bread of Winter" threads a heart-tugging story line into an apocalyptic vision that's as artfully elliptical as haiku.

Recently fired from her housekeeper job, the emotionally fragile Libby (Amy McWilliams) lives in a world plagued by tainted water, lethal cold, rampant insomnia and worms that eat through metal. The sun has gone AWOL and birds keep dropping dead -- plus, there's that flickering brightness that corkscrews around the sky and could possibly be an angel. Spurned by her cranky mother, Gert (Rosemary Regan), Libby clings to a precarious friendship with a latchkey kid named Gregory (William Beech) -- but at the ripe old age of 10, he's hardly up to arresting civilization's decay.

Neumann's production appropriately leaves the specifics of Lodato's dystopia to the characters' words and the audiences' imaginations -- except for a nifty will-o'-the-wisp lighting effect that appears a few times, courtesy of designer Klyph Stanford. It flickers briefly behind the split-level set (that, too, is Stanford's), a fusing of three comfortless domestic interiors and a lonely yard and street. Composer-sound designer Veronika Vorel thickens the eerie atmosphere with droning, keening, rattling textures.

But if these visuals and sounds were stripped away, the characters' haunted expressions would suffice to establish the play's bleak reality. Shifting her weight awkwardly as she muddles through conversations, or gazing skyward with timid hope as she attempts to spot the enigmatic angel light, McWilliams's Libby is an endearingly vulnerable figure. Equally impressive is Beech, whose shellshocked demeanor and flashes of despairing fierceness give the abused Gregory a dangerous edge. (Sean McCoy will portray the boy at the May 2 matinee.)

As Gregory's manipulative elder brother, Richard, Ben Kingsland manages to be both despicable and pathetic; the siblings' bickering rings with verisimilitude. Huddled on a chair, wearing scarves and fingerless gloves (Tessa Grippaudo designed the plebian costumes), Regan's Gert provides the right note of tetchy brutality, while Richard Pelzman turns in a robust portrait of a dockworker with a sexual quirk.

Lodato's characters are less than articulate, but as a whole this spooky play has an anguished lyricism about it. It's like Matthew Arnold's famous poem "Dover Beach" rewritten for the era of carbon-footprint paranoia.

(This production kicks off a Lodato double-whammy for Theater Alliance: The dramatist's "The Woman Who Amuses Herself" starts performances May 15.)

If "Bread of Winter" is anything to judge by, the company has made a smart programming move.

The Bread of Winter, by Victor Lodato. Directed by Dorothy Neumann; prop design, Elizabeth Johnson; fight choreography, Jim Zidar. Two hours. Through May 9 at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. Call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.theateralliance.com.

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