By Philip Pearce
THE LEADING CHARACTER in Sharr White’s stage drama The Other Place spends the play telling us her own story.
When a playwright adopts that technique, an audience knows everything that happens will have the emotional immediacy of first hand testimony from the mouth of an eye witness. But it’s also going to be filtered through the mind and will and psyche of the character who’s doing the talking. It’s no longer just a question of “What happened next?” but of “How much of what you’re telling me can I believe?”
The potentially unreliable narrator has been a plotting device storytellers from Charles Dickens to Alfred Hitchcock have sprung on readers and audiences for centuries. The Other Place, which just opened a four-week run at the Colligan Theater in Santa Cruz, offers a compelling new exercise in the game of Judge the Narrator.
When we meet Julie James in a finely nuanced portrayal of the frighteningly self- assured neurologist Juliana Smithson, there’s no clear reason to doubt anything she tells us and others about herself. Aged 52, she has stoically endured ten years of unsuccessful effort to find a runaway teen-aged daughter named Laurel. We learn that her oncologist husband is sleeping around, so she is suing him for divorce. She reveals that she has recently undergone a mysterious “incident” while in the Virgin Islands pitching a new anti-dementia miracle drug manufactured by the pharmaceutical firm she works for.
Her opening narration shifts to the slide projections and lecture that led up to her “incident.” It’s a brisk, clear, witty and well-researched presentation. At least until Juliana becomes aware of a blonde girl in a yellow bikini inappropriately seated in the middle of an otherwise all-male audience of medics.
As the presentation continues, the yellow bikini girl becomes more and more of a distracting obsession. And there are disturbing cuts from the conference platform to Juliana’s conversations with other characters like her husband Ian, played sharp and troubled by Shaun Carroll. Bits of Juliana’s self-portrait begin to chip away like pieces of a crumbling mosaic. Why does Ian doubt that his wife has really started receiving phone calls from the long lost Laurel? Is a tense, unsatisfactory telephone battle with Laurel’s confused boyfriend Richard a real event or a hallucination? Why is a Boston doctor (Audrey Rumsby) suspicious when Juliana insists that her “incident” was a symptom of brain cancer? What are we to make of the belief that all her confusion and conflict will be settled by a reconciliation with Laurel at The Other Place, a Cape Cod cottage they all once shared as a happy family?
Step by step, White’s script presents intriguing and surprising answers to central plot questions. Inevitably, I suppose, that’s a more vivid and arresting process than Juliana’s eventual discovery that “I need help, don’t I?” It happens at The Other Place and with an unnamed woman (also effectively played by the versatile Audrey Rumsby) as the beaten Juliana finally acknowledges she is not the missing daughter. The two of them find strength from their disparate emotional challenges and form a tentative friendship that is touching and believable.
But, unlike the powerful and beautifully acted material that has gone before, it’s also pretty predictable.
The production continues weekends at the Colligan through February 16th.
Photographs by Steve DiBartolomeo