Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 10, 2013
The Other Place by Sharr White. Directed by Joe Mantello. Scenic design by Eugene Lee & Edward Pierce. Costume design by David Zinn. Lighting design by Justin Townsend. Original music & sound design by Fitz Patton. Video & projection design by William Cusick. Cast: Laurie Metcalf, Daniel Stern, Zoe Perry, John Schiappa.
There's no contradiction here between the complete loss of one's being and the acquisition of a beatific recognition of a grander scheme at work. White, Mantello, and their star, Laurie Metcalf, who's giving a performance for the ages as the woman who's at the heart of it all, justify the bond between fluid and ostensibly unrelated concepts like recollection and apotheosis, by showing the myriad ways in which we're all masters of our own fate. This lets them elevate even mundane elements to the strata of the questionable and the extraordinary.
After all, how many dramas in which protein folding is a major plot point could also manage to be grippingly human? Yet White demonstrates a Tom Stoppardlike gift for both weaving into his narrative complex biological functions (focusing primarily on high-level neuroscience) and embracing the emotional underpinnings that make them matter. He may center on Juliana Smithton (Metcalf), a scientist who has recently become a traveling pitchwoman for an innovative anti-dementia drug, but he's actually looking at how we define things like memory, love, and life, and try to hold onto them when they begin to fall away.
That's exactly what's happening to Juliana. She suffers an "episode" while giving a presentation at a medical conference in St. Thomas, seemingly brought about by glimpsing a string bikiniclad young woman seated among a sea of white-coated male doctors. After returning to the U.S., Juliana attempts to get her illness identified (she's positive it's the brain cancer that runs in her family), but is thwarted by the husband, Ian (Daniel Stern), she tells us has recently filed for divorce from her; the too-bubbly young doctor (Zoe Perry) with whom Juliana is convinced Ian is having an affair; and the haunting phone calls with her long-estranged daughter, Laurel, who apparently now wants to reconcile.
Are all of Juliana's most cherished constants indeed vanishing? Once the diagnoses start arriving, and Ian (who's himself an oncologist) gets more closely involved, Juliana's accuracy in observingto say nothing of understandingher condition is thrown into question. And once that happens, Juliana's present, future, and past, the last represented by the Cape Cod second home (referred to in the title) and the tragic role it's played in bringing Juliana to this point, are all up for grabs. And that leads The Other Place itself to move into dark, fraught, and potentially redemptive new realms.
The meticulous crafting and layering benefit from top-notch conducting as well. This is not only by far Mantello's best directing work ever, but masterful in its own right: It seamlessly links the factual and the (maybe) fictional, adroitly using Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce's cluttered mindscape set (which has been aggressively lit by Justin Townsend) to fashion a range of disparate locales, and keeping every feeling at a full, rolling boil. His work with the actors is also sublime, and he's guided Stern to reach a highly credible balancing point between consolation and confusion, Perry (Metcalf's daughter) to embody both clinical and compassionate extremes as a series of "troublemaking" women for Juliana, and fourth cast member John Schiappa to bring a smoky hint of elegant menace to his minor supporting roles.
Ultimately, The Other Place rests on Juliana's shoulders, and Metcalf is more than sufficient Atlas to support it. Initially bearing a crisp, businesslike mien that gives way easily to raw humor, Metcalf slowly dons the even more vivid personality of a woman who's convinced the only correct vision of anything is hers. Though comfortable at opposite ends of her character's dramatic spectrum, whether spitting wry one-liners at the girl in the bikini or negotiating a wrenching (and largely wordless) scene in which Juliana sees the truth of her situation while eating Chinese food, Metcalf is perhaps even better in the middle.
When consulting with her doctor and unable to grasp the concept of being unable to smoke, or grasping her phone with an iron grip during a deceptively one-sided phone conversation with Laurel, Metcalf fuses Juliana's numerous facets of rage, loss, wonder, and optimism into a picture of astonishing mental and spiritual nakedness. Is she stripping herself bare so the world won't be able to do it for her? Or is she, as she surmises, a victim of forces more powerful than she can comprehend? Metcalf, who's only expanded and deepened her work since this production (with a couple of different actors) premiered Off-Broadway in early 2011, keeps the mystery crackling a surprisingly long time, well after White has begun suggesting that maybe there is one knowable answer after all.
But Metcalf is so wrapped up in this woman that there's nowhere else for her to go. Watching her as Juliana, stumbling down new avenues of possibility in a struggle to explain the inexplicable and find order in her personal chaos, it's difficult to argue with that choice. She makes you believe in Juliana, and accept her as an avatarhowever unwitting or unseeingof exactly what the title promises: a plane of existence none of us can imagine. Metcalf, White, and Mantello ensure that by the end of The Other Place, you'll know it intimately, and be grateful for even the most imposing nuances that prevent all escape while at the same time setting you free.