Dying is easy, the dying actor said; comedy's the real bitch. The performances in Washington Ensemble Theatre's production of Crumbs Are Also Bread, Stephanie Timm's dark comedy, are so uniformly fine, such an unqualified pleasure, that it was late in the play before I noticed how smoothly this flawed but spirited work was going down. Set in the fictional "blink-and-you'll-miss-it" Midwestern town of Breadmouth, Timm's tentacled, interknitted narrative of resentments, rivalries, and lusts thawing in the dead of winter is an updated slice of Sherwood Anderson–ville, a static, seemingly boring setting where the lifelong inhabitants make do with stiff upper lips and hearts afire. Everything that burns is not always brilliant, however, and Crumbs evinces a sharp eye for the bathetic details of lives sputtering in silent desperation: the repressed lesbians who poison each other's pets; the dead soldier's wife who dons his jacket for a late-night waltz; the stilted, searching conversations of unhappily married men. Such moments, filigreed like snowflakes with idiosyncratic pain, carry the ineluctable force of truth, and truth is the currency of art.
Crumbs Are Also Bread Washington Ensemble Theatre at the Little Theater, 608 19th Ave. E., 800-838-3006, www.brownpapertickets.com. $10--$18. 8 p.m. Thurs.--Mon. Ends March 12.
In the end, though, all this left me wanting much, much more, partly because Timm's narrative arc is so sharp; any one of Crumbs' interlocking stories, popping and flaring like Roman candles, could have sustained its own full treatment. Wanting more isn't usually a bad thing, of course, but here each episode, while drawn with authenticity and emotional power, calls for more fleshing out, more depth—perhaps just more time onstage, along the lines of, say, Robert Altman's brilliant treatment of Raymond Carver's short stories in the film Short Cuts. Yes, crumbs are still bread, but even a few more crumbs, sprinkled fairy-tale-like along Timm's path to resolution, would have been nice. I would have followed.
What I really wanted more of, though, was that cast, every single member of which gives a lovely performance, entering into the juicy naturalism of Timm's writing with its edgy psychology, genre elements, and oddly gothic overtones. The play opens in darkness as the Listener (James Cowen)—a self-blinded transient and unanointed "mayor" of Breadmouth—whispers gnomic aphorisms about the secrets that speak to him from under a layer of silence and ice. This prologue, with its exaggerated theatricality and earnest sense of foreboding, is a bit misleading; it's a familiar device in a play shorn of devices. Once the Listener steps aside (to listen), Crumbs begins to unveil its characters, starting with a meeting between the mysterious wanderer Rodney Smith (Lathrop Walker) and Sally Wolfe-Howell (Elise Hunt), a precocious 13-year-old grown "restless" with the pace and parameters of small-town life. Walker—who channels for his role the enigmatic loneliness of Knut Hamsun's antiheroes as well as the belligerent, nihilistic rage of David Thewlis in Mike Leigh's Naked—is becoming one of Seattle's finest actors; he carries a poise and intensity, a kind of mannered fury, that is captivating. (It would be thrilling to see Walker sink his teeth into one of Tennessee Williams' brooding losers.) Hunt proves a crackerjack study at comic characterization (she also plays Pearl, one of two old-maid sisters). When Rodney and Sally come together onstage and start their perverse dance, it's not that the sparks fly—not exactly. It's more as though a smoke signal goes up, a warning of something dangerous afoot.
It took me a while to realize Alexandra Tavares was playing two roles—she does such a fantastic job of making each idiosyncrasy and character nuance speak both as Clementine, the seemingly straitlaced schoolteacher and military widow, and as Wilda, half of the lesbian duo who have been morbidly sabotaging each other since they discovered their attraction in high school (playing opposite her is Kelly Kitchens). Of Basil Harris' three roles, the one that almost steals the show is Sebastian, a homosexual living a solitary life in his mother's house. It's a sad, hilarious, touching performance made even more so by John Farrage's complementary turn as Sebastian's alienated high-school friend Gunther (Farrage also plays husband to Kitchens' Hattie Howell). It may all seem confusing, but John Lang's superb direction keeps the action clear and smooth.
With this show, WET continues to present fine, innovative work that both engages and challenges. If Crumbs leaves numerous gardens untended and a few questions unanswered, it's captivating nonetheless. Would that there were a sequel (Croutons Are Bread, Too?), just to get another dose of this cast's top-notch work.