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In The Bread of Winter, playwright Victor Lodato has created a world on the brink of ecological collapse, where the sun never shines and the characters pin their hopes on the light of distant stars. “The cold makes you unsettled,” laments grizzled dock-worker Jack toward the end of the play’s slow-burn first act. “Makes you do things you wouldn’t normally do.” This is certainly the case for Libby (played with verve and vigor by Amy McWilliams), recently fired from a steady gig as a housekeeper/custodian of two teen boys after she has a psychotic episode while scrubbing a bathtub. Libby is so desperate to take care of someone that she attempts to thaw relations with her absentee mother and spark a romance with the brutish Jack—both with equally disastrous results—before returning to her previous employer and crossing paths again with those teen brothers. If the first act of The Bread of Winter is about the loss of innocence, Libby’s intimacy with the younger and more fragile brother, Gregory—staged to a sublimely disorienting effect with intercut dialogue—is notable as the play’s only example of a genuine human connection. Lodato’s dark vision comes alive in a staging that favors dull lights and blue gels that cast a series of dark and menacing shadows across the set. Meanwhile, the omnipresent effects of a smoke machine fill the H Street Playhouse with a haze thick enough to choke on. It’s no coincidence that Klyph Stanford’s set design features six doorways, which characters noticeably exit more frequently than they enter. Home proves to be a terrifying notion for Libby and Gregory (William Beech, all raw nerves, with a depth and maturity that belies his youthful appearance), both of whom struggle to find safe spaces. In The Bread of Winter, children are forced to become their own parents—and they make a righteous mess of it. Libby’s loveless environment has stunted her own social development, and one unspeakable act at the hands of his older brother Richard has threatened to do the same for Gregory. The chemistry between McWilliams and Beech is impossible to deny, but the rest of Lodato’s characters often come across as magnetic poles repelling one another. Maybe that’s why the open-ended nature of the first act is eminently more satisfying than the “hurry up and wait” tone of what follows after intermission—Lodato has created an environment too alienating to be settled with one warm embrace.