The first few minutes of Sharr White’s fascinating drama The Other Place are intentionally disorienting. As the audience arrives, our heroine has been seated center stage fiddling with a smartphone. Then she rises and introduces herself as Julianna, a prickly 52-year-old medical researcher turned pharmaceutical pitchwoman. It gradually becomes clear that we are meant to unravel two parallel mysteries involving Julianna. One is medical: Julianna has suffered an ”episode” while making a presentation at a medical conference in St. Thomas and fears that she’s contracted brain cancer like her father did before her. The second is personal: She has fallen out of contact with her daughter, though the exact reason for the estrangement is revealed only gradually.
White cleverly handles both narrative riddles, seeding scenes with clues and miscues. Julianna is a perfect fit for Laurie Metcalf, a Steppenwolf Theatre veteran best known for her Emmy-winning work on Roseanne. Still lithe in a slim black skirt and jacket with a black and white top (the costumes are by David Zinn), Metcalf radiates a brusque intelligence and mordant wit with occasional flashes of raw and childlike vulnerability. Hers is a mesmerizing performance.
As her husband and a fellow doctor, Daniel Stern projects improbable patience in the face of trying circumstances. The four-person cast, crisply directed by Joe Mantello, also includes John Schiappa and Zoe Perry in a variety of roles. Perry in particular stands out in a late scene set in Julianna’s former weekend home on Cape Cod — the ”other place” of the title. In a remarkable dramatic pas de deux, she manages to tap all of Julianna’s long-repressed anxieties and guilt about her mothering skills in a breathtaking if fleeting moment of catharsis. It’s crackling theater, and it elevates the puzzle-like structure of White’s plot into something with real emotional heft. A?
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