At barely 85 minutes long, it would seem that Sharr White’s ambitious play, “The Other Place,” could not possibly be the dark, intriguing, deeply psychological meditation on guilt and self-recrimination that it rewardingly turns out to be. But White has managed to pack all that and more into his carefully crafted foray into the mysterious recesses of the human brain, as evidenced in Rob Ruggiero’s meticulous production at Hartford’s Theaterworks, where it is playing through April 19.
That this production is anchored by the complex tour-de-force performance of the remarkable Kate Levy only adds to its ultimate impact. The part of Juliana Smithton, a former neurobiological researcher who now serves as a sales representative for her pharmaceutical company, makes considerable demands upon an actor, and Levy imbues her with the right mix of hauter, confidence, frustration, and devastation, characteristics that Levy doles out in carefully modulated steps per White’s carefully plotted play.
For Smithton, who we initially meet as she recounts an unsettling incident at a national conference of neurobiologists, will prove to be a remarkably unreliable narrator, for us the audience and ultimately for herself. As Juliana taunts the audience of male doctors in a sea of jackets and ties about the potential of a new drug to fight brain cancer, she sees a young woman dressed only in a bright yellow bikini in her audience. She can’t tell if the young woman is absorbed by the topic or just walked in out of curiosity about the subject matter, and begins to include some obvious asides to her in her presentation.
We later see a more harried and anxious Juliana in a series of telephone calls to her daughter and son-in-law and learn that her husband, Ian, an accomplished surgeon, is leaving her even though they are still living together. Juliana’s anxiety continues to grow as she becomes more forgetful and has a harder time accessing words and phrases from her scientific background. She finally becomes convinced that—irony of ironies—she is now suffering from the same disease, brain cancer, that she has devoted her career to addressing.
To say that all may not be what it seems is an understatement, but White has carefully laid the groundwork so that while we are mystified about what is happening, we also become invested in Juliana and Ian, particularly as we watch him exhibit compassion and dedication as he attempts to deal with her shrill insistence that she knows best how to handle what is going on with her. As White suddenly flashes back to an incident two years previous at the family’s cottage on Cape Cod, “the other place” of the title, the inconsistencies and hints that he has planted come at last to make sense, in a heartbreakingly real manner.
Levy must walk a fine line as Juliana, maintaining the arc of the story without giving too much away too early then succumbing to the emotion and devastation of the final revelations, which find us back again at the other place. It is a wonderfully calibrated performance that ultimately conveys a genuine depth of feelings.
R. Ward Duffy provides Ian with a hearty stoicism, which he gradually reveals to be a partial façade, as he struggles with doubt and frustration over Juliana’s inability to move beyond the defense mechanisms she has carefully developed for herself in order to explain what we learn is the unexplainable. Duffy also subtly reminds us that Ian has also been impacted by the events several years ago at the other place, allowing us glimpses of his exhaustion and anger over the lingering aspects.
All of the other characters are played by Amelia McClain and Clark Scott Carmichael, billed as “The Woman” and “The Man,” respectively. Carmichael’s roles include Juliana’s son-in-law who he plays as a busy, harassed young father whose behavior toward Juliana oddly contradicts what we have learned about their relationship, as well as an aloof sound engineer and an oncologist confused as how to affirm or deny Julliana’s expectations. McClain plays Juliana’s daughter who seems reluctant to talk to her mother on the phone, as well as a patient therapist struggling to overcome Juliana’s resistance and, most memorably and touchingly, as an initially startled young woman whose connection to the other place offers some necessary comfort and healing to Juliana.
Luke Hegel-Cantarella’s two-pronged scenic design includes for the first part of the play an abstract set whose side wall is filled from ceiling to floor with what appears to be hundreds of pages of notes and research attached by tape or glue. He provides a more detailed and conventional living room set for the other place that could indeed believably pass for Cape Cod construction. The magnificent video and projection design, which encompasses the elaborate brain and gene simulations of Juliana’s convention presentation as well as some of the family’s Cape memories, are by William Cusick, who handled similar duties for the off-Broadway and Broadway productions of “The Other Place.” Dorothy Marshall Englis’s costumes convey the characters’ jobs quite readily and are extremely helpful in distinguished The Woman and The Man’s various roles. John Lasiter lighting handle a variety of effects, including outlining Juliana as she is onstage delivering her lectures as her slides swim and float behind her.
Ruggerio has gotten excellent performances out of his cast, as well as carefully guiding the audience from uncertainty and suspicion to ultimate clarity and emotional resolution, a journey well worth taking from the depths of mystery and recrimination to the rewards of resilience.
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