THE PUZZLE BOX OF THE SOUL
Critics should avoid discussing plot in their reviews, but playwright Sharr White has unintentionally placed a challenge before me: because the play is a labyrinthine unraveling from the start, divulging any but the slightest bit of plot may irrevocably alter your experience. What I can tell you is that his fascinating, wistful, and thought-provoking play The Other Place is about longing, regret, acceptance, grief, love, resentment, science, and—to some extent—health care and corporate America. But it’s also a mystery that begins dropping clues from the start, leading to an ending that, at first glance, is completely unexpected, yet is logical and sound given hindsight, provided that the spectators have carefully observed the clues. In the final moment of White’s beautiful play, the eighty minutes of dialogue which came before will rush forward in your brain like a tsunami of information that washes through your soul and then quickly dissipates, leaving the spectator satisfied, astounded, and heartbroken; every question you may have formulated as to what exactly is the play’s true story is suddenly answered.
In film, they call it a “mindfuck.” Certainly, White is intentionally misdirecting us from the start when we meet the intense, eloquent research scientist Juliana Smithton, who addresses the audience directly. She tells us that she is lecturing about a new drug to a conference in St. Thomas, but immediately and throughout the play, she will break the fourth wall, commenting on and then interacting with other characters: Dr. Teller, a female physician who is in the process of diagnosing Juliana’s unknown medical condition; Ian, the husband who is going through a separation with Juliana; and their daughter Laurel and son-in-law Richard, both of whom have a contentious relationship with Juliana. And then there is the unseen girl in a yellow bikini whom Juliana espies during her lectures…
The title refers to a Cape Cod cottage once owned by the Smithtons—actually, it refers to much more than that, but that’s for you to discover, for Mr. White’s script is packed with abstractions, obfuscated memories, and topsy-turvy facts, all of which will lead Juliana to the other place where revelations await.
Henny Russell gives a multi-faceted portrayal of Juliana: her unsentimental forcefulness and intense confrontational style belie the vulnerable, questioning woman who is the soul of her character. Ms. Russell’s frustrations and desires are keen to the point of palpability for the viewer; as such, this dominating and controlling character consistently has our empathy. Donald Sage Mackay, who was riveting as an icy supervisor in Blood and Gifts at La Jolla Playhouse, demonstrates the consummate actor’s gift of creating dialogue beneath the script; choices made by Mr. Mackay, such as asperity, sometimes came off as incongruous to his character—until, that is, we discover the truth behind his brusqueness. When a script is pocked with half-truths, it is the actor’s responsibility to keep them believable; both Russell and Mackay excel in this arena.
Carrie Paff creates distinction between her three characters, including the frosty doctor, a quarrelsome daughter, and a befuddled stranger; Paff triumphantly brings such clarity to each role that it is mind-boggling only one actress is at the helm. Patrick Russell has fewer scenes, but shows a keen dexterity as exasperated son-in-law Richard and a placating assistant.
Directed by Producing Artistic Director Loretta Greco, The Other Place seems perfectly suited for an intimate space such as Magic Theatre. Under Greco’s astute use of the space, Myung Hee Cho’s minimal set suggests a Virgin Island conference room and a doctor’s office perfectly in our mind’s eye. I wonder how this will be handled when The Other Place receives its Broadway premiere in December at Manhattan Theatre Club with Joe Mantello directing Laurie Metcalf as Juliana. At the Magic, our imagination was freed up to envisage locations, aided by Eric Southern’s lights, Brandon Wolcott’s sound, and Hana Sooyeon Kim’s video design. My only quibble is that the show feels directed for a proscenium theatre; even though Juliana addresses the audience on all three sides in this thrust space, the audiences on the sides rarely have actors face them directly.
This is a marvelous play which gives hope to the suffocating and ubiquitous trend of 90-minute, intermission-free plays which are no better because they are shorter. Mr. White takes what is essentially a simple story and hurls it through time and space, giving us insight into both the search for truth and the grieving process. The Magic creates magic yet again.
photos by Jennifer Reiley
The Other Place
Magic Theatre in San Francisco
scheduled to end on October 14, 2012
for tickets, call 415-441-8822 or visit http://www.magictheatre.org