Sharr White’s play “The Other Place” made a splash in New York a few seasons back, and it’s easy to see why it caught everyone’s attention. It’s a cunningly constructed work – simultaneously a mystery, a family drama and, above all, an intimate psychological portrait of a soul in torment.
Both New York productions benefitted the incomparable Laurie Metcalf in the crucial role of Juliana, a sharp-witted 52-year-old scientist who is the play’s central character. In its Orange County premiere at the Chance Theater, director Matthew McCray is fortunate to work with Jacqueline Wright – less famous than Metcalf, but just as capable of the mercurial, stunning changes of personality the role requires.
Juliana narrates the story, which begins with an unnerving episode. With dispassionate precision and the egotistical hauteur common to successful professionals, she tells a story about her presentation at a medical convention in the U.S. Virgin Islands, an event that slowly goes awry. A biophysicist turned pharmaceutical pitch-woman promoting a new wonder drug, Juliana becomes confused and agitated, losing her way as she gets strangely obsessed with a woman in a yellow bikini sitting in the audience with the gray-haired doctors.
Juliana makes a quick self-diagnosis: she has brain cancer. But like many doctors she’s a terrible patient, snapping peevishly at a professional trying to evaluate her condition (Krystyna Ahlers) and shutting down her husband Ian (Ron Hastings), an oncologist who is apparently cheating on her and plans to end the marriage.
Gradually, we learn that things aren’t what they seem. We have to piece together crucial questions: what really happened to Juliana and Ian’s teenage daughter, who ran away from home years ago? Or to Juliana’s postdoctoral fellow, who apparently seduced her daughter and stole her away? And what’s the significance of “the other place” – an old Cape Cod weekend home that’s been in Juliana’s family for generations?
It would be criminal to delve too deeply into these mysteries in a review. Suffice it to say that putting them together as the story fitfully unfolds is one of this play’s great pleasures. White is a master of misdirection and inference. You have to pay attention.
This play wouldn’t fly without the right cast, and as mentioned, Wright skillfully brings Juliana to multifaceted life. She’s frustrating and infuriating, boorish and self-absorbed, but she’s impossible not to like – or at least mesmerize you. Wright doesn’t forget to show Juliana’s charming side.
Several other roles are smaller but crucial. Hastings’ Ian seems self-serving at first, but you gain huge amounts of sympathy for Ian as you gradually realize what he’s up against. Ahlers plays several roles, including a crucial late-play turn as a stranger who quickly intuits how to handle Juliana at her most addled – a wonderful scene. Philip David Black, sadly, is underused in a role that’s too small to make an impression.
This production does wonders with the Chance’s tabletop-sized Fyda-Mar Stage. Megan Hill’s set can be ingeniously adjusted to change locales quickly. Kathryn Wilson’s costumes contain crucial secrets about Juliana’s state of mind – pay attention to the color yellow.
The Chance continues to excel at bringing small yet intense and influential plays to local audiences. If you’re a fan of that brand of theater, mark “The Other Place” as a must-see.
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.