The Other Place by Sharr White. Directed by Christopher Innvar.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"I'm sorry, you have to prepare me. . .for what?"
Dementia comes in a variety of forms. Sometimes it even comes in the form of extraordinary clarity. Juliana Smithton is always very clear about what has happened to her and around her and it is her professional face, that vision of clarity, that protects her from the extremes around her. She is a scientist, a doctor, the representative of a major breakthrough drug dealing with dementia in others. She has devoted her life to the study of this illness, its causes and its potential cures. She knows dementia inside and out.
It is her own life that she doesn't quite grasp. She and her husband have a lovely home. He is an Oncologist. They own a house on Cape Cod - it is their other place with a history all its own. It is the home from which their daughter disappeared years earlier. In spite of that horrible night, it is a place Juliana yearns for in her travels as a source of solace and completeness. It is a place she cannot get to, no matter how hard she tries.
In Sharr White's play, "The Other Place," opening the season for Barrington Stage Company at their second stage in Pittsfield, the St. Germain Stage which brings its audience so very close to the stage, where intimacy enthralls onlookers who cannot move out of the grasp of actors, this need so deeply entrenched in the heart and soul of Juliana reaches into the guts of those who sit and watch. This is not the easiest play to be in or at. Juliana struggles with truths and with myths of her own creation. Dementia is discussed and it is each audience member's responsibility to decide what is truth, what is myth, what is dementia.
Marg Helgenberger plays Juliana with a solidity and a strength that makes her character's own confusions so irresistible. She brings beauty and grace and a visual serenity to the mix and this combination increases our anxiety for her as confusion and hilarity blend in this dark comedy. The play's own thrust, a single act covering years of experience, months of real time and the oddness of certainty, is on Helgenberger's shoulders for she never leaves the stage for even a moment. We are invested in her strength right from the beginning, even if we don't understand that at the get-go. She pulls us through her difficult story and when she opens her hand and unleashes us with fury and pent-up hostility we are as adrift in space as anyone would be in a situation dependent upon defining reality.
Her husband, Ian, is played with an almost equal strength and forcefulness by Brent Langdon. He is her match in every way and whenever he speaks directly to her the world of major confusion grows slightly askew. In a way their dialogue is more like a fencing match than anything else with thrust and parry and block and parry constant and dreadful. He portrays love like no one else has in a while and he does so honestly. It was hard to decide if he was Helgenberger's height or shorter or taller than her. What effect this has is simple: reality is further distorted with reality.
Katya Campbell and Adam Donshik play a wide variety of roles in this play and they perform each and every one of them with wonderful characterizations, defining each person as they go and keeping them all very real. Again, it is reality that is the keynote of this play and these players are key, essential to the rhythms of dementia, Juliana's topic for the night, as well as to the humanity of the play.
Christopher Innvar has taken this play to a simplistic reality that cannot be questioned. He has used Sharr White's innovative and emotional play to strike an easy balance with commonality and with restraint. He uses the stage like a master puppeteer and his living Pinocchiae find life through his manipulation of them. As with his earlier directorial assignments with this theater company he is able to keep things growing in front of an audience in a play about inner and outer conflicts. He has a sure hand in works like these. Here's hoping he gets many more such projects to direct.
Much depends in this play on the mind manipulation that a lighting designer can assay. Scott Pinkney outdoes himself with subtlety and snap. Brian Prather's simple set works very well (in complete contrast to the Broadway outing for this play) and Kristina Sneshkoff's costumes define each character perfectly. Anthony Mattana provides original music and sound that embellishes the work nicely.
Barrington Stage Company starts its twentieth season with a hard attack on the heart and mind and they deliver a product that inspires conversation and thought and more chatter about things most of us don't care to consider. Never afraid to take on these tasks, this company leads us into a season about conflicts, legal, romantic and more with a play that takes on the challenges with absolute resolution and beautiful ones as well.
The Other Place plays on the St. Germain Stage in the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center at Barrington Stage Company, located at 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, Massachusetts through June 14. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888 or visit their website at www.barringtonstageco.org