Sharr White’s “The Other Place” deliberately confuses its audience with its series of unnerving contradictions that emerge immediately at the start of the play through a number of absurd-sounding situations, like a woman in a string bikini sneaking into a medical seminar attended by jacket and tie garbed doctors. But as the season opener at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA, the work lacks the subtlety and depth necessary to sustain interest and concern for the evening’s notoriously unreliable narrator, Juliana Smithton, a neuro-pharmacological researcher who now serves as a salesperson and rep for the new brain cancer drug she helped develop.
This is due in part to director Christopher Innvar’s failure to maintain a steady, coherent pace that allows the secrets and revelations to unravel in a sustained manner as well as Marg Helgenberger’s one note performance as the tormented researcher. Best known for her work on the CBS hit series, CSI, the actress’s take on the role lacks nuance. She tends to declare all of her lines rather than inhabit them, even as she jumps back and forth in time to tell the story of that fateful medical conference in St. Thomas that led to a breakdown and her subsequent visits to a neurobiologist. The only way one can really tell the difference between her relating the story and reliving it as it occurs is the rather annoying amplication of her voice with a microphone as she presents her information to the gathered physicians. Her voice reveals no sense of concern about what could be happening or any curiosity about what it all could mean.
Admittedly, Sharr’s protagonist is in multiple states of denial and, as a woman of great intelligence and accomplishment, stubbornly reluctant to admit any diminishment of any of her powers. And, yes, Helgenberger does indeed depict her character’s stubbornness to its extreme. At the same time, however, the change in her role from successful pharmaceutical developer to a more educational sales role had to have its roots in certain concrete developments that occurred not too long before the play begins. One might think her reaction to all the changes that have occurred in her life would not be limited to strident, frequently adversarial denial but also reveal some subtle underlying fear and frailty.
As such, it is difficult to fully engage with Juliana and easier to be frustrated by her and quite actually dismissive of her. Even though we eventually learn that she and her husband Ian, a prominent oncologist, have endured the pain and anxiety of an unresolved disappearance, it’s hard to feel as much as we should for Juliana once the full circumstances of the mystery at hand are revealed and what her role has been in it. Actually, the first moment that we can ascertain the full measure of Juliana’s humanity is in the actress’s line readings immediately after she has finally seen the extent of her actions.
That realization occurs at “The Other Place” of the play’s title, Juliana and Ian’s cherished summer home on Cape Cod. It is sad that stage space and perhaps budget considerations limited Innvar’s and set designer Brian Prather’s ability to give detailed life to the other place, as the warm, inviting place that Juliana remembers. As represented by a barebones wooden table and chairs with a tacky curtain pulled across the back of the stage, the “other place” is shockingly lackluster, even though White’s stage directions strongly encourage a full, realistic depiction of the home, as a stark, shocking contrast to the minimalism recommended for the earlier scenes. This detracts from the power and mysteriousness of the later scenes in the play as our own brains try frantically to figure out what is happening. Prather’s abstract set for the earlier scenes, two benches on either side of the stage, with an attractive curving wooden wall at stage right, is absolutely fine to accommodate the playwright’s need to move through time, location and even a bit of, shall we say, wish fulfillment.
I was also distracted by Prather’s arrangement of the projections of the slides of the brain that are used in Juliana’s opening presentation. They seem to lack the full professionalism of a major, multi-national drug company, which would no doubt pour generous resources into their development. They are not always perfectly timed to Juliana’s presentation, as there are times when there is a delay from when she says “Next” to the slide actually appearing, and occasionally it’s hard to locate the next slide once it appears, particularly if it is located in a small corner of the screen which would make it difficult for her audience of doctors to see.
Brent Langdon succinctly captures the concern and frustration that her husband Ian experiences as he accompanies Juliana on her journey, as well as demonstrates the herculean effort it takes to lovingly remain at her side. Katya Campbell shines in several roles, delineating each so well that it is initially difficult to realize that she is playing Juliana’s neurobiologist as well as several somewhat younger characters, including a vulnerable young woman who rather rewardingly reveals a depth of compassion that helps another character experience a breakthrough. Adam Donshik also plays a variety of smaller roles, particularly offering a glimpse of what a harried father of two young twins might be like at bath time.
Kristina Sneshkoff’s costumes genuinely capture the personalities of each of the characters, though it’s a shame that she doesn’t get to actually depict the much-discussed yellow bikini. Scott Pinkney’s lighting is fine, though it was hard to discern whether some of the lighting cues were being held a bit too long or not sufficiently timed.
Admittedly, Helgenberger does not have a lot of stage credits and this appears to be her first stage role in a long, long time, if not her first at all since college. One hopes that she will be able to grow into the role and be able to incorporate more nuance and subtlety into this and future performances.
Despite its disappointments, it still remains possible to enjoy White’s play for the careful set-up and unraveling of the mysteries at its core, though a few matters are deliberately left open-ended to allow for audience determination. Its length at one act at just under 90 minutes with no intermission allows the questions to be resolved fairly satisfactorily. But somehow this production falls short of being a fully-developed portrait of a woman confronting the demons of her recent past and the potential personal implications of her own work on neurobiology.
“The Other Place” runs through June 14 at the St. Germain Stage of the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center of the Barrington Stage Company, 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield, MA. For tickets and information, visit the Barrington Stage Box Office at www.barringtonstageco.org.
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