How fitting in this season of remembrance to see a play about the nature of memory.
Sharr White’s The Other Place, currently receiving a haunting, heartbreaking production under the intelligent direction of Joseph W. Ritsch, is a play about the reliability of memories, and what truth and what we may have blurred and reshaped to shield ourselves so we can keep on living.
It is also a drama, with moments of stinging humor, about dementia and how it robs not only the patient, but everyone around them. However, The Other Place is not a Lifetime cable channel movie of the week about a heroic woman battling a dread disease; instead it is a well-constructed mystery that sharpens and becomes clearer with every accreted scene.
Watching The Other Place, you may feel as though your mind is playing tricks on you. Relax, the feeling of disorientation is intentional, as we are meant to see the play from the derailing mind of Juliana Smithton (Julie-Ann Elliott), an authoritative, in-command research scientist working for a pharmaceutical company. Juliana, in her tautly tailored suit and heels, is one of those people who does not suffer fools gladly, and as an audience member you are relieved that you don’t have to come under her firing line gaze and withering humor.
In the middle of a presentation at a medical convention in the Virgin Islands about a promising drug for dementia, Juliana has an “episode,” her blithe explanation for a period of disorientation, paranoia and volcanic rage.
Back home with her oncologist husband Ian (Nigel Reed), Juliana believes she has brain cancer, since she recalls family members dying in their 50s after experiencing similar symptoms. But does she?
And what about her accusations of adultery to her heroically patient husband, or her attempts to re-establish contact with her long-gone daughter Laurel (Maggie Robertson, cleanly delineated in a variety of supporting roles)? Not to mention her deeply nostalgic love for “the other place,” a Cape Cod beach house, so exquisitely rendered by set designer Nathaniel Sinnott that it is both a weathered, shingled coastal haven and a shadowstruck chamber of the mind.
The Other Place stretches and folds into itself like a neurological taffy pull, presenting scenes and conversations that seem to ring true until the awful truth comes tumbling out a short time later. You think you can trust Juliana’s narrative because, as played with astonishing command and crushing humanity by Elliott, she seems so brusquely sure, so confident.
The Other Place
closes September 25, 2016
Details and tickets
But White’s cunning play shows how crumbly memories and perceptions can be; how profoundly unsettling it is when everything constantly shifts and nothing remains solid or sure.
The definite, corporately aggressive Juliana of the early scenes of The Other Place transforms into a woman warping and melting between delusion and reality. A testament to the beauty of Elliott’s performance is seeing the brash fire in Juliana’s eyes slowly be replaced by confusion and fear, particularly in a later scene where she ends up in a stranger’s home and thinks it is her daughter.
This scene also shows the effect of dementia on other people, as the woman (Robertson) goes from surprise to exasperation and then unexpected kindness when dealing with Juliana. Nigel Reed, as Juliana’s husband, also is superb portraying the queasy kaleidoscope of emotions a loved one experiences—heroic patience, befuddlement, anger and frustration.
One of the rich ironies of the play is the idea of someone who helps develop a drug for dementia getting the disease, but rather than this seeming darkly farcical there is a sense of sad inevitability—maybe Juliana pursued dementia research so tirelessly because on some level she may have intuited it could be her fate. Physician, heal thyself—if you can.
The Other Place by Sharr White . Directed by Joseph W. Ritsch . Featuring: Julie-Ann Elliott, Maggie Robertson, Nigel Reed, Scott Ward Abernethy . Scenic Designer: Nathaniel Sinnott . Lighting Design: Conor Mulligan . Sound Design: Billy D’Eugenio . Costumer Designer: Eric Abele . Projection Designer: Sarah Tundermann . Properties Designer: Dre Moore . Dramaturg: Lisa Wilde. Production Stage Manager: Julie DeBakey Smith . Produced by Rep Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.