Whenever I’ve gone to the Road Theatre, I’ve always come away impressed with the robust professionalism of the company: excellent acting, sensitive direction, and stunning design work are the hallmarks of the group. Alas, I have also – always – come away scratching my head as to why all that talent and professionalism has been squandered on the play I’ve just seen. Unfortunately, The Other Place continues that streak.
Sharr White’s unrelentingly grim drama revolves around what has become this season’s disease du jour: early-onset Alzheimer’s, striking an intelligent, articulate middle-aged woman. In the movie Still Alice, for which Julianne Moore recently won the Oscar for Best Actress, the character is a 50-year-old professor of linguistics at an Ivy League university. In The Other Place, the victim is Juliana (Taylor Gilbert), a 52-year-old neuroscientist – tough, brilliant, ambitious, until it all falls apart.
We first encounter Juliana as she tells us about lecturing to a group of physicians at a conference in the Virgin Islands. She went there to pitch a new drug she’s developed, which will do wondrous things for the brain in addition to making the drug company (and herself) a bundle of money. She’s smart and sharp, but as she segues into the lecture itself, she finds herself increasingly distracted by a young woman in a yellow bikini sitting among the men in the audience.
As we jump back and forth among the lecture, her home, and her doctor’s office, it becomes apparent that, despite her success, life isn’t rosy for Juliana: she’s in the process of separating from her philandering husband, a noted oncologist; she’s estranged from her daughter and son-in-law, and yearns to see her two infant grandchildren; and she’s been having mysterious medical “episodes” which she fears indicate brain cancer. In fact, she seems to be having one of those very episodes as she lectures.
The playwright fractures time and space, jumping ahead, going back, and doling out bits of information (and misinformation) with the reluctance of a glutton being forced to share his sandwich. The characters shape-shift before our eyes. Juliana’s husband, Ian (Sam Anderson), seems awfully solicitous for a man who’s abandoned his wife – oh wait, did he really abandon her? Maybe not. Juliana’s daughter phones her, but Ian says she can’t have – it’s impossible, and Juliana knows why. And what about Juliana’s former research assistant, whom she fired for having sex with her daughter, and who then ran off with the girl? Will giving him money make him stop being angry with her?
The writing follows the current uber-trend of trying to keep the audience wondering, and at times it seems as if the playwright simply tossed scenes into the air, put them in the script in whatever order they landed, and is challenging us to see if we can figure out what’s going on.
Eventually the effort becomes more wearying than intriguing, but, thanks to a fine cast and production, even an unreconstructed linearist like me is willing to go along for about two thirds of the play.
Andre Barron’s assured, understated, and elegant direction eschews frills, and keeps the pace crisp and the audience’s attention tightly focused. He uses the space fluidly, sometimes staging concurrent scenes – which another director might play at opposite sides of the stage – in the same space, with only the lighting distinguishing one from the other; it’s an imaginative technique, unexpected and effective.
He’s also coaxed excellent work from his four actors. In a tour de force role, Ms Gilbert gives a thoughtful, carefully calibrated performance, avoiding going for easy sympathy, and bravely making Juliana as difficult and unpleasant as she needs to be; she convincingly shows us Juliana’s downward spiral from a Mistress of the Universe to a slobbering child unthinkingly gorging on Chinese food. As her husband, Mr. Anderson does yeomanlike work in a thankless role, providing solid, stolid support amid the frustration and sorrow he feels as Juliana disintegrates.
As The Woman, Danielle Stephens plays several roles, including Juliana’s daughter and her doctor, and subtly but definitively makes each character a distinct personality. And as The Man, Dirk Etchison makes the most of an underwritten series of vignettes.
The tech credits are first-rate. Kaitlyn Pietras has created a spare, elegant set and vibrant projections on a paneled screen anchoring the rear of the stage. Pablo Santiago’s lighting, Michele Young’s costumes, and David B. Marling’s sound design all make invaluable contributions: precise and correct, doing just what they need to do without drawing undue attention to themselves.
But even this combination of talent can’t overcome the problems in the final third of the play, which begins with an overwritten scene set in “the other place,” a house on Cape Cod which had long been in Juliana’s family, but which was sold some time ago. This flat-footed – and long – scene is not only obvious, but also introduces a new character, who, with her own overstuffed drama, threatens to wrestle our attention away from Juliana.
The house of cards finally collapses in on itself completely in the final moments of the play which, remarkably and lamentably, manage to be both elliptical and trite at the same time: maybe there’s hope for Juliana, and OMG, now we know who the girl in the yellow bikini is!
So much care and love and talent is on display here – one wishes it had been lavished on something more satisfying.
The Other Place
Written by Sharr White
Directed by Andre Barron
Through April 11
The Road on Magnolia (in the NoHo Senior Arts Colony)
10747 Magnolia Boulevard
North Hollywood, CA 91602
Tickets: Visit www.roadtheatre.org or call 818-761-8838