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The set up:
One could argue that all theater, as in the act of watching it, is a slippery concept. No matter how clear or purposeful a playwright may try to make his or her work, its meaning changes according to the point of view of each member of the audience. What you see is not what I see; your nuance is not mine etc. So how then to deal with a piece of theater where slipperiness is the main thrust of the experience?
This is the challenge Sharr White puts to us in The Other Place, a character study of a neurological scientist descending into dementia. Or is she? Maybe, as she believes, it’s brain cancer? Either would explain the strange things she sees and hears. Or is she really seeing and hearing anything at all?
Like the Simon and Garfunkel tune goes…we’re slip sliding away with this one.
“The first glimmer of it began on a Friday”, says 52-year-old Juliana (Josie de Guzman), a brilliant but prickly scientist who has patented a synthetic molecule she believes will slow down the process of dementia. A glimmer of what, we aren’t initially sure of. We do know she’s talking to us right before she takes the lectern at a neurological convention to pitch her molecule to a room full of doctors. During the talk, Juliana becomes distracted, perhaps hallucinatory, aggressive and despondent in short distressing bursts as she switches back and forth between narration and lecture. Increasingly focusing on an inappropriately yellow bikini-clad female in the audience, Juliana describes an overwhelming feeling of loathing and bottomless regret for this woman who suddenly vanishes as if she were never there at all. That glimmer Juliana mentioned seems to reside within her own mind and it’s not at all a welcome one.
White uses the lecture as a jumping off point from which flashbacks and flash-forwards cut away to scenes of Juliana’s obvious descent into some kind of affliction. Interspersed with her quick paced, staccato scientific talk (nicely illustrated with power point slides in Sven Ortel’s projections) and her increasingly agitated monologue style narration, we meet the people who populate her world. There’s her oncologist husband Ian (John Jellison) who may or may not be divorcing her, her son-in-law (Nick Farco) and daughter (Ashley Austin Morris) who she hasn’t seen in many years and who her husband refuses to believe she’s in contact with and Juliana’s neurologist (Morris again) the young, pretty doctor who may be too busy sleeping with Ian to render a proper diagnosis as to what the problem seems to be.
As she increasingly becomes confused, argumentative and downright rude to those around her, Juliana may not know (or not accept) what’s happening to her, but there’s one thing she’s certain of. She longs to go back to “the other place”, a summer family home on Cape Cod. It’s here that she thinks she can finally reunite with her daughter if she can just talk her into agreeing to meet.
In the 90 or so minutes White has our attention, he seems intent on ruining his own surprise. Rather than allowing the audience to see through the unique (and to my mind far more interesting) eyes of Juliana’s confused perspective, White throws spoilers at us left, right and center as characters step forward to call Juliana’s bluff. We watch Ian vehemently deny that he’s divorcing her, we see the doctor deliver a definitive diagnosis and we know far too early in the arc that Juliana’s calls with her daughter are not what they seem.
More problematic than knowing and therefore being somewhat bored by the punchline long before the central character has figured it out, is White’s overstuffing of the dramatic pie. It isn’t enough that Juliana is cognitively deteriorating; she has to be suffering from an unspeakable family tragedy as well. Sure it allows White to inject a big melodramatic final scene where tragedy coats tragedy, but it lands like one of those ghastly seven-layer dips you know would taste much better if it had been restrained to just one or two flavors.
Director Don Stephenson’s emphasis of the comedy in the show doesn’t help the awkward overlay problem with the script. In what feels like an apology for making us sit through a show about an uncomfortable subject (note to playwright, we are not delicate flowers in need of a cheap laugh) White injects several comedic moments along the way. Some, like Juliana’s prickly and sarcastic strip-tearing of her doctor when they first meet, is a passably amusing moment. But in the latter, more serious and importantly tense scenes, Stephenson has De Guzman play Juliana like Carol Burnett’s goofy but angry Eunice Higgins character with arms flailing, voice octaving up and down and mouth left agape waiting for the laugh. It gets the giggle from the audience but serves to distance us from Juliana’s plight. Are we to laugh at her or empathize with her? Here White’s comedy and Stephenson’s spotlight blocks us from the emotional attachment needed to care about this poor woman.
But it isn’t only De Guzman that we have a hard time feeling for. Jellison as Ian is equally unavailable to us with his thin slice of emotional output that rides just this shy of smarmy. Whether he’s being kind to his wife, yelling at his daughter or consulting with the doctor, Jellison’s Ian feels absent and unengaged with anyone or anything. By the time his one big emotional breakdown comes, we see him as only a prop in the action and shed not one tear with or for him.
In the small role as the daughter, Morris is serviceable. Her doctor however suffers from a case of dress-up acting. Putting on a white coat and holding a clip board does not a convincing doctor make and Morris has difficulty projecting the learned professionalism necessary to make us buy her medical degree. As a surprise woman at the end of the play (not mentioned previously so as not add to the spoilers you’ll already experience in the show) Morris suffers once again from White and Stephenson’s humorous touch. She handles the role nicely with decent comedic timing, but as the vehicle that forces us to laugh at a suffering Juliana, we feel mostly discomfort and yearning for scenes that could have meant so much more.
It’s not often that set design gets talked about in the final evaluation of a show, but it bears mentioning here. Perhaps to offset the competing tones, blown mysteries and big overwrought but biteless scenes, Michael Schweikardt has designed a set so minimal that only one upholstered club chair graces the black box stage for 90 percent of the show. Clear bulbs hang over the perimeter of the space to flicker whenever Juliana spirals away from her lecture to a memory in the past or a scene from her future. A final scene brings a handsome looking door and some lovely rain. It’s simple and elegant and clean. Everything that this production isn’t.
Losing one’s mind – regardless of the reason is a messy business for sure. And yes, there’s the kind of theater messiness that engagingly compels us to get in the muck of the story and be grateful for the intellectual dry cleaning bill that will come later. The Other Place is muddy rather than messy, obscuring its own messages with too many tones, middling performances and questionable direction. Instead of slip sliding into heart wrench we leave the theater questioning nothing and caring little.
The Other Place continues through November 15 at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, Neuhaus Theatre. Purchase tickets at alleytheatre.org or call 713.220.5700. $26-$45.