Michael L. Quintos
Associate Los Angeles Critic
In award-winning playwright Sharr White's intriguing 2011 psychological drama “THE OTHER PLACE,” the play's compelling central figure, 52-year-old laboratory scientist turned drug company marketing exec Juliana Smithton, narrates her own fascinating story directly for the audience.
At first, she is introduced with the poise and prominence of a seasoned TED Talk orator, with even hints of a sharp stand-up comic that's adept at self-effacing observations and commanding an audience of drunken doctors. It certainly makes sense, considering it seems to be what she does for a living, at least for the moment: getting up on stage in front of medical conventions and neurological conferences near and far to pitch her revolutionary miracle treatment to attendees in the same way Tony Robbins, Suze Orman, or even Oprah or Dr. Phil might address a room.
But as Juliana's first-person narration starts to spill over and get intertwined with fully-dramatized recollections for us to experience (and compare with), we soon become privy to an otherwise professional, highly-educated, seemingly rational woman unraveling at the seams.
There is no denying that she is clearly articulate, smart, witty, and oozing with the kind of profound confidence one would expect from a ball-busting female executive. But it still comes as quite a shock to learn that—as the play slowly transpires—there's a strong possibility that the truthfulness of her personally-conveyed autobiography may be tainted by a possible mental problem that has subsequently affected the way she has been navigating her life.
You then wonder: are we getting the entire picture here or are we getting an unreliably tainted one, marred by something yet to be revealed?
This, of course, becomes the main trajectory of “THE OTHER PLACE”: to slowly peel back each layer of mystery in small little doses, hoping a diagnosis would eventually make things make sense not only for us, the audience, but, perhaps, for the troubled Juliana herself as well.
For its stirring Orange County Premiere production currently on stage at Chance Theater in Anaheim through October 21, Juliana is played with powerful, intense ferocity by Jacqueline Wright, in what will surely be noted as one of the season's most memorable dramatic performances you will long remember this year.
When we first meet Juliana, she is the epitome of smarts and brass. She has just arrived at a posh golf resort on the island of St. Thomas to give another one of her pitches to a roomful of doctors at a convention.
While speaking at the convention, she suddenly has a very public medical "episode"—triggered by, she claims, the distracting sight of a young female attendee wearing a yellow bikini, which, understandably, is quite out-of-place at such a conference.
As a former biologist, her immediate knee-jerk self-diagnosis is that she has brain cancer—an ailment several members of her family, including her own mother, have died from as well. Coincidentally, the very treatment she's pushing at all these conventions, Dentamyl, might be a promising, possible cure for what she claims she may have.
Juliana's therapist (Krystyna Ahlers, in one of three roles), however, has other theories—derived from her own contentious sessions with Juliana as well as eye-opening revelations from Juliana's oncologist husband Ian (Ron Hastings).
But perhaps her medical episode came about because she's just suffering from a heavy amount of ill-timed stress caused by her constant travels and the fact that her supposedly cheating husband wants to divorce her (they are separated by he still dotes on her and looks out for her welfare).
Oh, yeah… and then there's her decade-long anguish over her estranged 25-year-old daughter Laurel (also Ahlers), who 10 years before apparently ran away from home to start a life with her once trusted laboratory assistant Richard (Philip David Black)—the very one that helped her develop Dentamyl.
Through her paranoia and irritability, Juliana's sole calming thought is focused on what she constantly refers to as "The Other Place," a humble country cottage out in Cape Cod that the Smithtons once owned. In her heart (well mind), she believes Laurel has actually returned to the cottage raising two girls of her own with her now husband, the aforementioned ex-assistant Richard. But Ian refuses to believe her assessment because he himself have never talked with either person.
Wright's riveting, laudable performance—simultaneously juggling between cautiously subtle, passionately paranoid, pridefully self-assured, and, eventually, achingly heartbreaking—is a gripping, perfectly executed examination of the debilitating effects of mental trauma not only for the person who goes through it first-hand, but for the people in her immediate periphery, whether they are close relations or casual acquaintances.
The various people that come in and out of Juliana's bubble are all naturally affected by her behavior.
Hastings's admirable performance as Ian easily earns both our suspect and our sympathy, giving the role the necessary pathos of a harried husband trying to stand by the irrationality of the woman he loves. Black's smaller roles in the play zip by too quickly to register much, but Ahler's multiple roles, however, are each distinctive and superbly portrayed. I especially like her third role in the play which arrives at the very end of the play. In that role, Ahler almost stands in for the rest of us, able to outstretch her arms to offer a comforting embrace to a confused and devastated Juliana.
An intimate drama with enormous punch, “THE OTHER PLACE”—under the caring and sensitive direction of Matthew McCray—satisfies its audience by keeping us emotionally invested and constantly surprised, even as we watch a seemingly stable woman slowly spiral into what may (or may not) be the initial stages of dementia. With so much talk these days about how mental illness is something our nation should address more, the play provides a relatable portrait of grief and suffering that supports our collective need to care for people who deal with mental issues daily.
It's quite a harrowing inner tug-of-war to witness—that has us continuously questioning whether Juliana's expressed recollections are sourced from truthful memory or a physically-compromised brain, as the carefully dispensed layers of her mysterious predicament unfold. And because Juliana's academically-framed but jovially-delivered method of sharing her story feels and sounds like how an engaging professor would lecture to a room full of rapt students, the play keeps us intrigued throughout its entirety—and, better still, genuinely elicits sympathy towards her plight.
Though, for me personally, “THE OTHER PLACE” takes about ten minutes in the beginning to truly take off from its vague declarations (in the author's effort, I assume, to keep the mystery floating in sheer ambiguity). Clues are aplenty if you look and listen intently (oh, look, Ahlers' characters all wear some kind of shade of yellow!), which probably works even better on multiple viewings.
But “THE OTHER PLACE”—in its entirety—is a satisfying slow burn, stoked, of course, by an intense lead performance by Wright that keeps you teetering uneasily at the edge of your seat. It is truly a gutsy and powerful performance supported by appropriately nuanced portrayals by her co-stars.
Surprisingly enough, the intimately-focused play itself also works admirably in the smaller theater space offered by Chance Theater's Fyda-Mar Stage. With a minimalist set designed by Megan Hill (aided by Nick Santiago's projections and Alexander Le Vaillant Freer's lighting design) that quickly transforms from a convention stage, to a therapist office, to a city apartment, and to a country cabin with just a twist of one wall, “THE OTHER PLACE” is able to express its multiple locations well within just a small footprint—something that does not surprise me at Chance productions.
If you're looking to see a moving, intriguing intimate drama in the OC, then allow “THE OTHER PLACE” to be a brief, 90-minute sanctuary from the loud noises outside.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.
Photos from Chance Theater's production of “THE OTHER PLACE” by Doug Catiller/True Image Studio.
Chance Theater's Production of “THE OTHER PLACE” continues on the Fyda-Mar Stage through October 21, 2018. The Chance Theater is located in the Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center at 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, CA 92807. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.ChanceTheater.com.