We are who we think we are. Thoughts grow and change over time, but we remain a composite of our memories and our ideals. What happens when those factors don’t grow or change but dissipate? Not in one fell swoop, but slowly and then with ferocious speed that sputters and slows only to resume its pace once more. Who are we when our memories ooze and morph like the innards of a lava lamp? When an illness has no exact start time, how do we differentiate between who we were before and who we are now?
Those questions are just some of the powerful and profound concepts delivered in the mere 80 minutes of The Other Place (Manhattan Theatre Club.) Written by Sharr White with a delicacy and excruciating insight rarely seen in concert with such powerful playwriting. The play is told with many flashbacks and to great psychological thrilling effect. Things are seldom what they seem and that’s what makes Mr. White’s writing so fine. Life is messy, human behavior is diagnosable but not predictable.
Laurie Metcalf is Juliana, a brilliant and accomplished scientist who currently works for a drug company. The drug she’s helped to create is for (yes) dementia. We are introduced to her in her very best condition as she reenacts her first diagnosable episode. She is a somewhat unreliable narrator and it is through her eyes that we view her marriage and her diagnoses. The introduction of her husband Ian (Daniel Stern) and the strength of her doctor (Zoe Perry) helps us to tease apart the narrative. It is an achingly real and raw narrative with a substantial dose of complexity. We learn of the layers of loss and regret and are left wondering how to separate psychic pain from a psychic degenerative wound. Ms. Metcalf is captivating. She is a lithe vibrant powerful woman who must devolve into a heap in a very short period of time. No matter how exacting the writing, in a lesser actor’s hands this feat could go terribly wrong. Ms. Metcalf is on stage the entire time and it is simply not possible to avert one’s eyes. She is wonderfully matched in intensity and artistry by Mr. Stern and by Ms Perry and John Schiappa who play multiple roles. It is a tight and complementary ensemble.
The fluidity of this production is due to the grace of Joe Mantello’s direction. On paper The Other Place might be indecipherable. But with spot on sound (Fitz Patton), lighting (Justin Townsend), precise video (William Cusick) and a pitch perfect set (Eugene Lee & Edward Pierce) the story unfolds gracefully and beautifully.
This is a play whose power and artistry linger. If there was any flaw (and it can be argued there wasn’t) it’s a little tidiness towards the end. It is a rare night at that theatre in which your mind and your soul are put so thoroughly through their paces.
The Other Place opens January 10th.