Today’s playgoers are used to solving puzzles in the theater. So perhaps Playwright Sharr White spends a bit longer than necessary to get us to The Other Place promised by the title of his 2011 drama.
But don’t unfasten your seatbelt yet. We haven’t reached the end of the runway. There is more to this mystery than mind games.
White works up a lot of dramatic intrigue early on by simply withholding vital information. But just as those of us in the opening night audience at Rep Stage were starting to wonder if there was nothing more to this 2016 season-opener, the playwright unleashed a one-two emotional wallop that left us asking whether anything in the upcoming season could possibly top it.
Without spoiling the pleasures of discovery, let’s just say generally that this is a play about identity and about the importance of human connections. It centers on a Boston neuroresearcher who is promoting something called Identamyl, her own patented mind-enhancing invention. At 52 years-old, Juliana is the embodiment of the trim, high-powered, dressed-for-success businesswoman.
What is getting harder and harder for Juliana to ignore, though, is that her own personal life is in a shambles. She is in divorce proceedings with husband Ian, whom she suspects of carrying on with a younger colleague; her grown daughter won’t take her phone calls; and she is often shocked at her own curt treatment of total strangers.
All of this has led to what she now calls an “incident,” which she fears may be linked to a family history of brain tumors. When she steps center stage to talk to us, she is really searching for clues to understanding that greater pattern of chaos engulfing her.
Julie-Ann Elliott brings Juliana to full-dimensional life, and by the end she moves us near tears with the burden she is bearing. The actress is onstage constantly, fiercely standing up to an existential onslaught worthy of Hamlet, yet ultimately showing us how all of her behavior is simply a mask for human vulnerability.
In some ways, veteran Howard Community College favorite Nigel Reed (and Helen Hayes Award winner) has the tougher job as husband Ian. Reflecting what Juliana herself is undergoing, Reed must somehow balance threadbare tolerance and self-righteous anger over her unjust accusations, all the while feeding our suspicions that he may be exactly what she says he is. It’s a testimony to his strength and skill as an actor that his love shines through his exasperation, even if her complaints are true.
The ensemble’s third lead player is another HCC newcomer. Maggie Robertson stands in as Juliana’s figurehead for those hapless medical specialists grappling with her diagnosis. It’s toward the end of the play, though, as she is playing Juliana’s substitute daughter, that Robertson soars, transitioning before our eyes from paranoid bystander to sympathetic caregiver, all in the space of a few minutes. It’s another award-worthy performance at the esteemed Rep Stage Company.
Rounding out the cast as a variety of substitute heroes and villains is likable Scott Ward Abernethy.
Director Joseph W. Ritsch has found material well-suited to his strengths. His sensitivity and insights are never stronger than when they are given over to human nuance rather than spent on abstractions like last season’s academic Antigone Project.
Ritsch has surrounded himself again with skilled colleagues for this season’s kickoff. Scenic Designer Nathaniel Sinnott and Lighting Designer Conor Mulligan anchor us in that other place, a weathered vacation cottage on Cape Cod that is all that remains of a happier past.
Prepare to be bowled over by the final minutes of The Other Place. That is when all the pieces come together and we are reminded of the awesome role that connections play in who we are. Besides the disorienting sense of need when they go missing and the terrible loss when they break down, there is also a glimmer of hope when new ones are made — even though fleeting, even though with a total stranger.
Director Joseph Ritsch calls this fine new drama a play about memory. Those seeing it at Rep Stage may indeed find it hard to forget.
Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.
The Other Place by Rep Stage plays through September 25, 2016 in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College — 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.