Story: Research scientist Juliana Smithton is a driving force in her field; as she says to a convention of physicians, “Protein folding is my area.” While she touts the virtues of a pharmaceutical drug called Identamyl, though, she seems to space in and out of her presentation.
There’s a disturbing reason for that attention annoyance. Juliana is being treated by a colleague of her oncologist husband, Ian, for a neurological disorder. For decades, despite her high intelligence, Juliana has concluded that her father died from brain cancer, as did her grandmother and great-grandmother. This concerns her own doctor, who suspects that something else may be responsible, as brain scans of Juliana soon indicate.
Juliana struggles to keep her life together, coping with an analyst whom she does not respect, as well as the perceived, myriad infidelities of Ian and a tense and estranged relationship with their daughter, Laurel. At age 15 Laurel had run away from the family’s retreat at Cape Cod with Juliana’s lab assistant, a man 15 years Laurel's senior. Laurel and her lover now have twin daughters, grandchildren Juliana has never seen, which only exacerbates Juliana's deteriorating condition.
Highlights: Playwright Sharr White’s one-act, 85-minute drama had its world premiere off-Broadway in 2011, followed by a Broadway run last year, with both efforts starring Laurie Metcalf in the lead role. This regional presentation at The Rep features a harrowing performance by Kate Levy as the tortured central character in a taut and tense production impeccably directed by Rob Ruggiero.
Other Info: White is an accomplished writer as evidenced by this terse, tight and clever script. Combine that with Ruggiero’s expertly crafted direction, splendid technical support and some finely etched performances and you have the ingredients for an evening of thought-provoking and heart-tugging theater.
Scenic designer Luke Hegel-Cantarella’s set cleverly utilizes a backdrop of cedar shingles that hearken to the title, Juliana’s beloved cottage on Cape Cod, and the increasing number of missing tiles as the show progresses subtly references her declining mental state. The set fluidly morphs into a doctor’s office or an upscale home via quick changes accomplished on stage.
John Lasiter’s lighting and Fitz Patton’s sound design and original musical composition eerily complement the surreal situations, underscoring Juliana’s fragility and tenuous grasp on reality. Costuming by Dorothy Marshall Englis emphasizes Juliana’s professional status as well as her gradually alarming state, while William Cusick’s projection design gives everything a properly ‘scientific’ appearance.
Levy is masterfully convincing in the difficult lead role of Juliana. Initially Juliana comes off as arrogant, nasty and condescending, taking a couple of cheap shots at an attractive young woman in a string bikini who stands out in the male-dominated audience listening to Dr. Smithton pitch the benefits of her client’s miracle drug. Then, just as quickly, Juliana stuns with an offhand remark about a “familiar trickle of regret” at her own sarcastic comments.
Throughout the smoothly paced, arresting arc of this tale, Levy paints a portrait of frightening despair with her looks as well as her actions, culminating in a heart-rending scene with McClain as a young woman whose home Juliana invades in a fruitless search for her long-lost daughter. Consuming Chinese food and chugging a bottle of water, her eyes vapid and devoid of meaningful intelligence, it’s an alarming and breathtaking depiction by Levy not soon forgotten.
R. Ward Duffy does a marvelous job conveying the frustration, alarm and concern of Ian for his wife as she heads down the rabbit hole. Amelia McClain does excellent duty in three roles, as the defensive, adult Laurel, the perceptive analyst Cindy and the accosted home owner, offering starkly different portrayals of the trio. Clark Scott Carmichael capably completes the cast in several minor male roles.
Haunting and sobering in its concise yet perplexing story, The Other Place will stimulate your brain and linger in your heart long after the lights dim on Juliana’s challenging affliction.
Play: The Other Place
Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Emerson Studio Theatre, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through February 9
Tickets: $49-$63; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.