Jennifer Haley’s lovely contemporary drama Breadcrumbs explores an all too familiar topic through an unconventional lens. Fairytales and dreams become the means of redefining identity and stability in a world suddenly turned topsy-turvy. The horizon line has disappeared, and all that looms is an infinite, indifferent darkness.

Alluding to the morsels Hansel and Gretel drop to mark their path out of the woods in the classic tale, breadcrumbs become a metaphor for the many ways we anchor ourselves to the world — and how devastating, and liberating, it becomes when those points of reference are lost. Directed by Jessica Kubzansky, Theater 150’s production offers a new facet to the much-documented topic of Alzheimer’s, without ever mentioning the disease by name.

Alida (Anne Gee Byrd) is a crusty, reclusive writer who brooks no fools, until she starts noticing early warning signs for dementia. She goes to a clinic for an appraisal and meets Beth (Brook Masters), an earnest, appealing young woman who offers to help her finish her novel, an autobiographical account of her upbringing with an unstable mother.

As Alida begrudgingly comes to depend on Beth and they slowly uncover memories from Alida’s childhood, the past and present unfold in parallel storylines.

The fairytale theme runs throughout the set design, with chalked outlines of trees forming the dreaded woods and chalked words scrawled across the walls, the floor, the chairs. (Chalk, like breadcrumbs, can be swept away.) Tendrils of crepe paper float like jellyfish from the ceiling, and Post-it notes, a writer’s mainstay, flutter like autumn leaves to the ground.

Byrd is masterful at transitioning from the gruff, no-nonsense Alida in drab pants and blouse to a young child scampering across stage or huddling at her mother’s knee. She beautifully captures the tension of an intelligent, clear-eyed child who recognizes her mother’s weaknesses yet remains eager to please her. And for those who have witnessed a loved one’s descent into dementia, her portrayal of a wordsmith losing her powers will feel achingly familiar.

Masters meanwhile offers the perfect foil as Beth. With her shock of red hair and effusive personality, she wins over the audience even as she struggles to gain Alida’s trust. But satisfyingly, Haley does not allow Beth to stay a one-note dynamo of enthusiasm, and Masters navigates this nuanced territory skillfully. Is Beth taking advantage of Alida’s illness, or is the cynic simply paranoid? A series of scarves allow Masters to double effectively as Alida’s mother, though she seems less at home in her secondary role than Byrd.

While the vignette structure of the script serves the play’s subject matter and themes, its constant switchbacks between past and present occasionally get in the way of the fine performances we see onstage. The play invites reverie, and at times it seems an additional beat is needed to do justice to the preceding scene. But a sluggish production poses equal danger, and Kubzansky adeptly avoids that fate.

Haley’s play evokes the work of another American female playwright: Sarah Ruhl, who, like Haley, attended Brown University and studied under Paula Vogel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of How I Learned to Drive. Ruhl also explored themes of loss, memory and language in Eurydice, her retelling of the Orpheus myth, and shares with Haley a dreamy, lyrical aesthetic and overall delicacy of approach. Perhaps that is why Breadcrumbs feels at times too familiar, or not quite fully crystallized. This is only the third production nationwide since the play premiered last summer at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in West Virginia.

But this play, and this production, do so many things right it would be petty not to dwell on the marvelous whole, on the words rather than the syllables. To paraphrase Alida: filling the world with words, or art, is the only way to go on living in it.    

Breadcrumbs, July 8-24, Theater 150, 316 E. Matilija, Ojai. For for more information and tickets, contact 646-4300 or