|Amy Thone, Ray Gonzales and Jocelyn Maher in The Other Place (John Ulman)|
The Other Place
Seattle Public Theater
Through April 17, 2016
Have you started forgetting things you used to dependably know? Names? Words? While scientists say that this phenomenon, which often starts in early 40s, is a normal part of aging, we also might start wondering if something more sinister is happening in our brains.
In The Other Place, now staging at Seattle Public Theater, Juliana (Amy Thone), a brain scientist, is pretty convinced that she could have brain cancer – a terrifying idea. What is clear is that the ground is shifting under her feet and her brain is not working the way it should.
Playwright Sharr White seems to like to embed mysteries in his plays. We recently were treated to another of his 90 minute one-acts, Annapurna, by Theatre22, which also had a mystery drive its action forward. In some respects, that play, with a singular mystery, was easier to understand than this play. This play seems to have several mysteries to unravel.
But the mystery of the brain is perhaps not one mystery, but several kinds of mysteries we have yet to unravel in scientific exploration. Certainly, we have likely barely plumbed even a tiny depth of understanding the brain.
The main role here is Juliana. Pretty much everyone else is outclassed as she steamrolls across the stage. Thone is a force of nature, generally, and here she is unleashed to seem to mow everything down in her path. Certainly, her husband (Ray Gonzales) can’t stop her.
Juliana is giving a lecture on the brain to a convention of scientists in the Virgin Islands. She also is telling her story to the audience, as she demands, “Next!” to the slide projector operator. And by the way, the slide projections assembled by Ahren Buhmann are absolutely gorgeous. We learn that her husband is divorcing her, and that she is newly communicating with her long-lost daughter. Life is not easy for Juliana.
Jocelyn Maher plays her daughter, a physician looking to diagnose and treat Juliana, and another woman and her character is labeled The Woman. John Bianchi, in one of the teeniest but important roles in a show, plays the daughter’s husband and another small support character and is labeled The Man.
The first 40 minutes are difficult because Juliana is a difficult woman to like. When we watch a character who is unlikable, it might be harder for some to feel like they care that she is in pain, or to want to empathize with her journey. Without spoilers, later scenes in the play do help you develop both the empathy and the understanding, and by the end, the mysteries are pretty well revealed. In fact, one major scene in particular is outstanding on its own, and beautifully written. Here’s wishing a bit more of the script were like that.
I think a mistake is made in this production: the talented Kelly Kitchens, a director I highly admire, did not create modulation of that first 40 minutes of Thone’s portrayal. There are actually a number of moments where Thone could have turned her behavior on a dime and portrayed a completely different emotion or characterization. She could have flirted or entreated or even laughed or joked with her husband. And it would have created not only more depth of character experience for the audience, but also been in harmony with real life. The script feels like it contains more options than are displayed.
I encourage you to go to see this riveting and mysterious play. By the end of the journey, you will feel it to have been a very worthy trip.