Nothing is as it seems in The Other Place, the beautifully cyclical drama by Sharr White currently in performances at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. A somber, but not sentimental, tale of a woman and a family struggling with loss and rebirth, and starring Laurie Metcalf in a devastatingly raw and honest performance, The Other Place engages viewers from the beginning and leaves them guessing even after the curtain has fallen.
We first meet Juliana Smithton, a drug company scientist, at a conference where she is presenting a drug that will help with the onset of dementia. Sleek and successful, clad in a black skirt suit and speaking in a clipped, rapid-fire delivery, Juliana presents herself as the package deal of the modern woman – ambitious, attractive, married with a child but still focused on advancing in her career. As she narrates to the audience, “When I add up the balance sheet of my life, the numbers say I’m happy.”
But lurking underneath Juliana’s protective, steely exterior is a crack. In the middle of her presentation she suffers an “episode,” as she chooses to call it, and quickly becomes convinced she has brain cancer. Her husband, a prominent oncologist (Daniel Stern) is not so sure and Juliana finds herself at an appointment with a seemingly unflappable doctor (one of the three roles played by an excellent Zoe Perry).
It quickly becomes clear that Juliana is lying to herself about more than her illness, especially regarding her communication with her estranged daughter Laurie, who Juliana says eloped with her former research assistant Richard (John Schiappa). As the clarity of Juliana’s perception becomes more and more questionable, so do her accusations of infidelity that she hurls at her husband, moments after engaging him in a warm embrace.
The set, by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce, are thought-provoking, representing both DNA cells and an encompassing cage, and the modern-day costumes by David Zinn also help to set the cold, clinical tone that fills much of the show. To say much more about The Other Place would give away too much, but this gripping, 70-minute drama, directed by Joe Mantello, is engaging from beginning to end. Metcalf’s performance, which capably depicts both the brittle defenses of a woman facing illness as well as the deep tenderness she feels for her husband and daughter, is a remarkable achievement. As her enduringly patient husband, Stern portrays the bewilderment and confusion as well as the rage a person feels when faced with the threat of losing a loved one. Perry capably juggles three roles as the doctor who bears the brunt of Juliana’s wrath, Juliana’s daughter and a woman who Juliana has an unfortunate encounter with at the play’s end. During that scene, when Juliana experiences hope, as well as an overwhelming flood of guilt and regret, Metcalf depicts an aching vulnerability that is extremely moving.
Metcalf gives an entertaining, endearing and honest portrait of a woman struggling to retain her sense of place in life. I found myself laughing when she wryly explains the difference between wearing heels or flats while presenting at a conference filled with men, and she also inspired empathy when sincerely asking herself, after singling out a young woman in the audience, “Why do I say these things? Why do I see something young and beautiful and want to scratch it to death?”
When leaving The Other Place, I heard people discussing the “likability” of Juliana, which I found to be an interesting comment. As a woman suffering from severe illness, Juliana inspired a great deal of sympathy from me. Why would people struggle to like her? Is it because she was a more sympathetic woman before she began experiencing symptoms of illness? Or is it because she is a woman, and women are expected to be likable even when suffering? If the protagonist of The Other Place had been a man, would people be discussing his likability? Would the thought even cross their minds?
While Juliana longed to return to “the other place,” her family’s beach home in Cape Cod, I found myself happily in residence at my “other place” – the incredible transportation to another person’s world through a powerful and well-performed piece of theater.