Fort Worth — He is trying to shave, standing at a sink and mirror, his face twisted with…what? Pain, anger, frustration? She—and they’ve been married for many years—is talking and talking behind him, accusing, pacing the room, buzzing with rage about…what? His cheating? Their daughter? Her career?
On the face of it, not an uncommon scene from a marriage. Why, then, does everything about it feel so odd?
There’s an all-too human mystery at the heart of Circle Theatre’s regional premiere of Sharr White’s tense and complex drama The Other Place. Strangely, though, chances are good that you’ll twig to what’s going on fairly soon; and if keeping the audience guessing isn’t the playwright’s primary goal, what is?
Here’s a theory: that playwright White wants and expects us to solve his mystery in short order, to have that “aha!” moment—by making a sudden and strong emotional connection between something we’re seeing onstage and something we’ve experienced in our own lives. Why? Because once we’ve made that connection, we will follow the rest of his story with more attention and heart than we might have before. And without giving away too much of the controlled-chaos plot, I can—to quote the Monty Python guys—say no more.
The Other Place is fresh from a double run in New York with MCC Theater and Manhattan Theater Club, both times with Laurie Metcalf (August: Osage County, The Big Bang Theory) in the starring role. The play offers a feast of a part for its lead actress, but as Circle’s fine production makes clear, White also gives the other three members of the cast plenty to chew on. Clare Floyd DeVries’ spare set design, an emphatic wall of alternating horizontal planks, creates a confined emotional space, and director Steven Pounders keeps the action wire-taut from beginning to end.
Juliana Smithton (Julienne Greer) is a scientist marketing a breakthrough drug that she herself developed. She’s sharp and strong-minded, a woman who seems completely in charge of her life. We see her pitching her discovery at a medical conference in the Virgin Islands; she’s slick and professional, though we begin to wonder about her obsession with a young girl in a bikini she notices sitting among the doctors. Suddenly, Juliana’s presentation is interrupted by fragmented scenes from other realities: Juliana back home in Boston confronting her husband Ian (Bill Jenkins), an oncologist; Juliana sparring with a young doctor (Meg Shideler) trying to ask her some basic questions; Juliana in an emotional, awkward phone conversation with her son-in-law (Curtis Raymond Shideler) and daughter (also played by Meg Shideler). What is past, what is present, and what is going on?
Juliana is hard to warm up to: she’s glib and jokey—in a too-scripted way—with the doctors at the conference, and downright mean and defensive with everyone in her personal life, especially when any of them (husband, daughter, doctor) challenges her point of view. And her relationship to husband Ian is confounding. There are flashes of humor and a sense of longtime connection between them: together, they’ve owned a much-loved beach house she calls “the other place”; together they worry about a daughter whose current relationship to them is unclear. But Julia is definitely on the attack, accusing Ian of domestic crimes large and small, including infidelities—and Ian responds to it with a puzzling mixture of hurt and desperation.
Greer and Jenkins make a believable married couple, troubles and all. Greer is especially gripping as the increasingly frantic Juliana, her self-control unwinding as she finds herself lost between present and past, certainty and contradiction. Even her use of language, at first so carefully controlled and modulated, begins to rev up like a racecar speeding toward a wall; her words come so fast they’re at times almost impossible to understand. And Jenkins matches her skill, his changeable face a mirror of his confusion, his restless movements revealing the turmoil he tries to keep hidden from his wife.
Curtis Raymond Shideler spars with Greer effectively in a phone call scene, and Meg Shideler—they’re husband and wife—shows real range in tackling three parts: the cold-voiced, annoying doctor whose questions seem rude and irrelevant to Juliana (but oh, aren’t we seeing her through Juliana’s eyes?); Juliana’s elusive daughter, suddenly in contact after a long absence; and a stranger whose kindness and caring comes at a crucial moment for Juliana.
White is good at breaking the tension in this dramatic story: several moments of dark humor surprise a big laugh from the audience. It’s a cleverly structured play, and White is a thoughtful observer of life. And wisely, though we might wish him to tie things up for us, he doesn’t let The Other Place come to a too-neat conclusion. Like life, he is telling us, this story will struggle on.