“The Other Place” examines the devastating effects of an illness that is becoming far too relevant to our lives.
The Other Place by Sharr White. Directed by Christopher Innvar. Staged by the Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA, through June 14.
By Helen Epstein
Barrington Stage Company kicks off its 20th season with a deft and provocative family drama imbued with psychological mystery. Sharr White’s highly literate and timely family play, which was first produced four years ago, keeps its audience on its toes, undermining our assumptions almost as soon as we make them.
I always wonder how a contemporary play finds a theater. Actor and Barrington Stage Associate Artist Christopher Innvar tells us in his director’s note: he was cast in a Manhattan Theater Club production of White’s The Snow Geese in New York and was so taken by the playwright’s sensibility that he chose to direct another of his plays in Pittsfield.
It’s easy to see why. The Other Place revolves around a deep crisis in the lives of a couple of stellar professionals: Ian, a middle-aged oncologist, and Juliana, his 52-year-old wife, a research scientist. The play begins with her monologue — pitching a drug Juliana’s lab has developed — at a mostly male medical conference in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. Brilliant, hard-edged, a chic professional, she lectures on her research with practiced ease, showing a series of slides, describing the way her drug interacts with the molecular structures diagrammed, and interjecting personal asides to her two audiences: the assembled neurologists and us.
A stark, single set facilitates quick transitions: the action moves from a contemporary living room to a doctor’s office and then a beach house. We slowly realize that these scenes may be flashbacks, flash forwards or Juliana’s fantasies about her marriage, her possible illness, her estranged daughter and son-in-law, and The Other Place, the house where her family summered when she was young and which she has inherited.
Between Juliana’s imperious commands to the slide technician, “NEXT!” we learn bits and pieces of the crises that drive the play. Like the English professor protagonist of Margaret Edson’s powerful drama Wit, Juliana is a fiercely independent academic who can turn on a dime from gracious woman to sarcastic bitch. Like Edson’s Vivian Bearing, she’s a control freak who suddenly finds herself having an inexplicable episode of memory loss. She’s suddenly out of control, suspicious, angry, confused, dependent on the kindness of both family and strangers. It’s a role to die for, and Marg Helgenberger fully inhabits Juliana’s many wildly fluctuating emotional states.
Brent Langdon is convincing as her puzzled and increasingly sorrowful husband Ian. Katya Campbell excels in the triple roles of Dr. Teller, Juliana’s daughter, and a stranger. Adam Domshik ably rounds out the ensemble as her husband and medical aide.
Innvar directs like the theatrical insider he is: he elicits persuasive performances from his actors; puts together a flawless design team; and keeps the momentum building until the very final lines of the play.
Some scripts transport us into faraway worlds and into the lives of exotic characters. The Other Place takes us inside living rooms and doctor’s offices that are all too familiar to us, and examines the devastating effects of dementia, an illness that has been less publicly discussed than cancer and is becoming far too relevant to our lives. That we walk out feeling enriched is a tribute to a remarkable playwright and a passionate production.