The Other Place
Good theatre, at its best, entertains and excites us in a way that no other medium can. Great theater, at its best, transcends even that unique experience and offers a devastating glimpse into the essence of humanity. "The Other Place" is great theatre.
The latest offering from Manhattan Theatre Club, which opened last week, is the beautifully simple story of Juliana, a pharmaceutical developer in her ’50s suffering from early onset dementia. By the time the lights go down on the final scene, every stage of the disease has been displayed: early indicators, diagnosis, denial, acceptance, agony, confusion, forgetting the diagnosis, renewed denial, renewed acceptance, renewed agony and confusion then, finally, resignation. Rinse and repeat.
Told sequentially, the story well dramatized would have made for a very good play on its own, but playwright Sharr White didn’t take that path. Instead of merely showing Juliana’s descent, she puts us inside her heroine’s decaying mind. We experience it in the manner she experiences it.
The show opens with Juliana speaking to the audience about an "episode" occurred during a presentation she gave at a medical conference in the Caribbean. A confident woman, Juliana jokes about what an unusual site an intelligent woman is at such conferences as most of the doctors who attend are men and the women are eye candy -- usually candy for other parts of the anatomy -- for these guys who are on an escape from their daily (presumably married) lives. To that end, Juliana tells of being aggravated by the presence a girl in a yellow bikini. What could she possibly be doing there? Has she come by accident?
Cut to Juliana’s meeting with an oncologist. She is always in charge, even when in medical care, and does her best to steamroll the young doctor into diagnosing brain cancer, as she is sure that’s what it is. We also learn that Juliana is going through a divorce when she can’t decide what the doctor should call her.
When Juliana calls her daughter Laurel to let her know about her illness, we learn that they are estranged and that Laurel is living with her husband and three kids. Juliana pleads with her to let her meet them to no avail.
Juliana’s husband, Ian, doesn’t believe her when she tells him about the phone call and asks her to call Laurel in his presence. When Juliana tells him she can’t, Ian begs her to stop talking about Laurel once and for all.
Laurel’s estrangement stems from her disappearance from their Cape Cod house years before. They eventually learned that she was kidnapped by one of Juliana’s old post doctorate students, the man to whom she is now married.
Though the trauma of this loss is most likely not a contributor to her eventual diagnosis, the disease makes her re-experience the event. Worse still, the dementia enhances and distorts the reality of the kidnapping, the intervening years and the present.
The details that come to light from that point forward are viscerally painful. Like Juliana, we are receiving unfathomable news that shakes us to the core. Unlike Juliana, we only have to experience it once. Juliana has known all of it before, been through continuous pain, and has no memory of it.
Throughout all of this, White takes us back to Juliana’s story of her presentation. As the story unfolds and Juliana’s health declines, her account becomes less confident and foggy. She even repeats parts of the story with different details but the girl in the yellow bikini never escapes her mind.
At times, White would have been well served to trust her audience a little more by getting out the scenes a little earlier, but it never detracts from the exceptional story telling and stellar structure.
Laurie Metcalf is so brilliant as Juliana that the performance must be seen to be understood. She was near perfect in the preview and I’m sure she will only grow better throughout the run.
Daniel Stern is great as Ian, the supportive husband struggling to put Juliana’s care before his own crippling grief. He matches Ms. Metcalf’s emotional depth in a way that is authentic to his character.
Zoe Perry’s performs several characters with skillful craftsmanship, but she really shines at the end the play as a woman who reluctantly helps when she finds Juliana during one of her episodes.
John Schiappa isn’t given much to do but makes the most of his chances.
Joe Mantello direction is flawless and I would expect nothing less from one of the most talented and successful Broadway directors over the last thirty years.
All in all, this play everyone should see because it is what theater can be and it should aspire to be.