by Lynn on January 29, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Sharr White

Directed by Daniel Brooks

Designed by Judith Bowden

Lighting by Michael Walton

Sound by Richard Feren

Projections by Jamie Nesbitt

Starring: Joe Cobden

Tasmin Kelsey

Haley McGee

Jim Mezon

A psychological drama about a woman whose world is spiralling out of control when she has a mental episode at a science conference.

The Story. Juliana Smithton is the narrator of the play.  She begins by saying that “The first glimmer of it comes on a Friday.”  She is a celebrated scientist working on a drug that will provide a breakthrough in the treatment of dementia.  The word is never actually said in her presentation. She is presenting her findings to a medical convention in St. Thomas. She is direct, highly intelligent, caustic, sarcastic, funny and brittle. She sees a young woman in a yellow string bikini among the throng of doctors and somehow decides to pick on her, although Juliana knows it’s wrong.

That ‘first glimmer’ of whatever it is that is bedevilling her results in Juliana flying home. Her husband Ian arranges an appointment with Dr. Cindy Teller who is trying to find out what the problem is with Juliana. Juliana thinks it’s brain cancer because it’s in her family. It becomes obvious that it’s different. Her husband Ian, an oncologist, knows it’s not cancer.

Juliana is convinced Ian is going to divorce her. She wants to contact her estranged daughter and son-in-law and calls them. Or does she? She wants to go to their Cape Cod house, referred to as ‘the other place’ but Ian dissuades her with concern and frustration until he has to blurt out that it was sold years before.

There is something wrong with Juliana. Sharr White, in his intriguing play takes us on a provocative unsettling journey to find out what that is.

The Production. Designer Judith Bowden’s set is elegant, spare, stylish and gives the sense of richness, whether it’s Ian and Juliana’s house, the medical office of Dr. Teller, or the beloved Cape Cod house. The colour tones are muted; the furniture is ultra modern. Michael Walton’s precise lighting instantly sets up different locations with forms of light indicating windows here, a door there, the past or the present.

This is a production of space. Characters are separated by space both literally and figuratively. Director Daniel Brooks has staged the play with geometrical patterns—first characters pass each other without looking at the other. Then one character might walk at right angles away from another character. This focuses on the loneliness and separateness of Juliana and Ian and isolates Juliana as her disease goes from ‘a glimmer’ to taking hold.

Then there is the problem of establishing Juliana’s loosening grip on reality and memory. She has fashioned a whole idea that Ian is divorcing her and no matter how firmly and passionately he says he isn’t, she can’t grasp the idea. She imagines that her long-absent, estranged daughter and son-in-law are eager to make contact. The reality is chilling.

There are two scenes at the other place. It seems like they take place in different time periods, or do they? A wonderful bit of physical business gives us a clue. For a bit of one scene and all of the next Juliana has a portion of her green blouse untucked from her slim skirt. The continuity of that one detail from one scene to the next scene, both in the other place,  suggests that Juliana’s grip on reality has slipped badly.

Judith Bowden’s costumes say everything about the four characters, especially about Juliana. She wears a very slim jacket and skirt, the striking green blouse and formidable high heels. This is a woman who impresses and overpowers with her look and her brains.

The acting is superb. As Juliana, Tamsin Kelsey captures all the brittleness and sharpness of the woman. Juliana knows she picks on people she finds weak and that woman in the yellow bikini is her latest target. The performance goes from a woman in control to one who slowly gets it, that something is wrong.

As Ian, Jim Mezon is a loving, frustrated man trying to deal with something he can’t fix. It’s so interesting living in an age when so much is known about dementia and yet seeing characters who still don’t know how to deal with the disease, no matter how knowledgeable. Haley McGee plays three parts: Dr. Teller, Laurel and The Woman. Each is distinct, their attitudes and looks are totally different. With a different costume and a different way of arranging her hair (and no other make-up) McGee clearly distinguishes each character. Joe Cobden also plays two parts, equally as distinct.

Comment. We certainly have seen a lot of plays of late that focus on disease: Waiting Room, HER2, and now The Other Place. The Other Place is the most mysterious.  We are deliberately kept unbalanced as to what is really happening with Juliana.

Sharr White has written an intriguing, compelling play about a woman spiraling slowly out of herself. Daniel Brooks and his cast and creative team have presented a gripping production of it.

Canadian Stage Presents:

First performance: Jan. 18, 2015

Soonest I could see it: Jan. 28, 2015

Closes: Feb. 8, 2015

Cast: 4; 2 men, 2 women

Running Time: 85 minutes.

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