On a stage-wide screen behind Sharonlee McLean’s conservatively bobbed head, chromosomes wander, proteins fold. McLean's character, Dr. Juliana Smithton—the protagonist of The Other Place, which opened this past weekend at Portland Playhouse's cozy digs—is pitching a drug that promises to combat dementia.
Juliana, our narrating neurologist, is no slouch herself; her wit is acute, her observations ascerbic. She interrupts her speechifying periodically, to offer the audience context for a strange mental “episode” that occurred whilst on this Virgin Islands junket. As such we’re not really here; this junket is a memory, as are phone calls with her estranged daughter (Nikki Weaver), sharp words with her soon-to-be-estranged husband (Duffy Epstein), and the curiously looping interrogations of a psychologist (Weaver).
With minimalist aural cues (microphones, chimes), we chase Juliana back and forth in time and space. With similarly minimal delay—playwright Sharr White’s one-act script lasts just 75 minutes—we are befuddled; Juliana’s story begins to chafe, then fray, then disintegrate (as does our protagonist herself) against her interactions with others. She is, in other words, an unreliable narrator: a mother who denies her nightmare is real, a doctor who might need her own medicine.
The Other Place saw its Broadway premiere in 2013; in an interview that year with Playbill, White said the genesis of the play was a friend’s intellectual challenge to find a structure that mimicked the unraveling of a healthy mind.
Yet in an era of augmented lifespans, it’s a plot that, for many, is hardly abstract. Such was the case on opening night at Portland Playhouse; my companion for the evening was visited by painful glimmers of her own family history.
The line between emotional dilettantism and recognition is fine indeed. My hat is off to Brian Weaver’s clever direction, which mostly transcends the play's late-onset pathos, and to the entire cast—Weaver, Epstein, and Jean-Luc Boucherot—for timing that aerates the brisk script with room to feel the memories wander and fold. McLean’s gift, as the star, is to gracefully implode her character; by play’s end, Juliana exists, but (you got it!) most definitely in another place.
The Other Place
Thru April 12 at the Portland Playhouse