HARTFORD — Sometimes when a review begins with a discussion of the set it is out of an attempt to be kind, because there was nothing else on stage worth mentioning or remembering.
That is definitely not the case with Hartford’s TheaterWorks production of Sharr White’s powerful and absorbing drama, The Other Place. Designer Luke Hegel-Cantarella, a TheaterWorks fixture known for the lovingly detailed naturalism of the sets he has created for the Hartford company, has done something quite different here. Hegel-Cantarella has created a two-part backdrop which alternates between coldly barren abstraction — bare walls shingled with what look like faded medical records or research journals — and an invitingly comfortable, totally realistic beach house. By the end of the 82-minute (no intermission) performance, the duality of the set resonates with meaning in a way that illuminates the play itself.
Being presented until April 19, The Other Place centers around the character of 53-year-old Juliana Smithton, who at the outset has just arrived in St Thomas to deliver a lecture to a gathering of physicians. Her topic is a new drug — the product of her own medical research — which has the potential to be a blockbuster in arresting, and possibly reversing, the ravages of dementia.
No longer a researcher, she is now a publicist for the pharmaceutical company which hopes to develop this drug. Her pitch to the audience is an invitation for them to get in on the ground floor by investing in something that is likely to become a billion dollar cash cow. But her talk is rigorously technical, copiously illustrated by colorful slides (John Lasiter’s lighting design) that trace the development of abnormalities in the cells of the brain.
Witty and focused, in her power suit and carefully done blonde hair, Juliana seems the epitome of the successful modern executive… except that in the midst of the talk, she becomes uneasily distracted by things in the audience. Suddenly the moment fractures into a succession of other scenes: Juliana is being interviewed by a pleasant young woman doctor; she is trying to hold a long distance conversation with her son-in-law while her daughter is heard in the bathroom, bathing the twin; she is screaming at her husband, Ian, accusing him of infidelity, while she is suffering from “brain cancer,” which nobody recognizes or understands, even though both her parents and one of her other relatives died of it.
In a classic demonstration of “show, don’t tell” White’s play captures the destructive realities of early onset Alzheimer’s without using labels. Kate Levy is stunning in her portrayal of Juliana, as she alternates between convincing lucidity and increasing episodes of rage and confusion. R. Ward Duffy as Ian is both believable and admirable in his dogged, pained patience as he continues to offer his love and support.
As the plot unfolds, the hardest thing for Ian to bear are Juliana’s claims to have been in contact with her daughter and son-in- law, and her talk of their beach house on Cape Cod, which she wants to give to them. This becomes more clear when the scene shifts to that house itself, and secrets of the past are revealed. It also becomes the setting for an act of unexpected and humane kindness on the part of a stranger, before reverting to the original abstract set.
In an ending that is not totally bleak nor devoid of hope, the audience comes to see the beach house — the other place of the title — in its symbolic meaning as Juliana’s sense of self. It is the repository of memories which are becoming increasingly frayed and unreachable, even as the papers which line the walls seem as faded and disjointed as the mutated cells in Juliana’s slides. Still she remains, in her dignity, facing the world with what she still has.
The other characters in the play, simply described in the program as “the man” and “the woman,” are played by Clark Scott Carmichael and Amelia McClain. Ms Mcclain in particular is very effective in her triple role as Juliana’s doctor, her daughter, and the current owner of the beach house, whose generosity to a stranger is poignantly powerful.
This is a terrific play, beautifully performed, and masterfully directed by TheaterWorks veteran Rob Ruggiero. It was sold out when we saw it, but if you’re lucky you might be able to get a ticket while it is still running.
(Visit TheaterWorksHartford.org or call 860-527-7838 for curtain times, reservations, or other information.)