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Tuesday, 28 January 2014 14:46

You can't go home again: 'The Other Place' at the Rep studio

Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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The Details

L-R: R. Ward Duffy and Kate Levy
L-R: R. Ward Duffy and Kate Levy repstl.org / Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

You're probably familiar with the phenomenon of the unreliable narrator—someone who won't or can't give an accurate account of his or her experiences and memories. In real life it's annoying as hell. In Sharr White's "The Other Place" it's the basis for a compelling drama about what happens when reality, perception, and memory become disconnected from each other.

Juliana, the play's protagonist, is the unreliable narrator. A successful scientist in her early fifties, she's giving a sales presentation on a new wonder drug she helped develop when she suddenly has what she describes as an "episode." She loses her way in the talk, becomes disoriented, and possibly even experiences a hallucination. She's convinced she has brain cancer, but does she? She's stressed because her daughter, who as a teenager ran off with the much older post-doc who was working for Juliana, has suddenly decided to reconnect with her while her two-timing husband is filing for divorce. Or is that really what's happening?

As the play progresses it becomes clear that she (and we) are not at all sure what's real and what's the result of insidious changes in her brain. Her attempts to sort out the former from the latter and come to grips with the slow-motion train wreck of her life are sometimes sad, sometimes funny, and always engrossing. "The Other Place" is, ultimately, a gripping portrayal of a woman trying to find her way in a world in which (to quote a lyric from "H.M.S. Pinafore") "things are seldom what they seem."

I am, of course, being deliberately vague about some of the details of the plot. That's because part of the impact of "The Other Place" comes from the twists and turns in the story as Juliana tries to separate the definite from the delusional. Spoilers would only dilute that impact, so you won't find them here.

When "The Other Place" had its debut in New York in 2012 it was a huge success. It's obvious why. Mr. White's script is a strong one, with dialog poetic enough to be interesting while still natural enough to sound real. His characters have depth and the story makes sense. Mr. White may be only a part-time playwright (he has a day job at a Manhattan ad agency), but he's clearly in full command of his craft.

The cast of this production is flawless, headed by Kate Levy as Juliana. Mr. White puts the character through something of an emotional wringer in the course of the evening, but Ms. Levy is more than up to the demands of the role's wide range. She's always focused and always credible. The same must be said for R. Ward Duffy as her husband Ian. The part is very nearly as demanding and he was never anything less than completely convincing. Amelia McLain and Clark Scott Carmichael are also excellent in multiple roles. Ms. McLain has a particularly fine scene towards the end as the current occupant of the family beach house (the titular "other place") that becomes a kind of idée fixe for Juliana.

Rob Ruggerio's direction is clear and his pacing just right. Luke Hegel-Cantarella's set, with its progressively chaotic wooden shingle backdrop, neatly mirrors the disintegration of Juliana's mind. It also serves as an effective screen for William Cusick's projections. Lighting by John Lasiter and original music and sound by Fitz Patton efficiently set scenes and ease transitions between them.

Like so many newer plays, "The Other Place" is a one act, running just under ninety minutes. A second act might have allowed the playwright to examine some of the issues raised about memory and one's sense of self in more depth, but I'm not sure it would have improved the play overall. As it is "The Other Place" is a pretty terrific evening of theatre and highly recommended.

"The Other Place" continues in the studio at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through February 9th. Note that all studio shows are open seating, so the earlier you arrive, the better your choices. And the studio now employs "take a number" to manage the line, so be sure to pick yours up as soon as you arrive. For more information: repstl.org.

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