Juliana Smithton's mind keeps wandering. Sometimes, she's herself, a scientist bringing her bracing intelligence to bear on cutting-edge medical research. But sometimes, she's sad and alone, a woman struggling to maintain her composure as her thoughts meander away. Her brain keeps seducing her out of the real world and into "The Other Place."
Playwright Sharr White, best known for the shattering "Annapurna," returns to the subject of memory and romance in "The Other Place," a gripping 80-minute enigma that will soon make its Broadway debut starring Laurie Metcalf ("Big Bang Theory," "Roseanne").
The work revels in White's gift for long-buried truths and dark secrets that refuse to remain hidden. Once again, he taps into a deep well of loss, trauma and regret with emotionally devastating results. Uncertainty crackles from every line in "The Other Place," in director Loretta Greco's deeply engrossing West Coast premiere at the Magic Theatre.
As the sly play begins, Juliana is holding forth at a prestigious medical conference on St. Thomas. A neurologist who now represents a pharmaceutical company, she is detailing research into a promising new drug designed to treat dementia. She's a woman at the top of her game, the smartest person in the room. She knows it, but there's something a little slippery about her facility with language and ideas.
At some point in her talk, Juliana's studied air of authority begins to fray. Her commandingly
Juliana, tenderly played by Henny Russell, can't seem to focus on the matter at hand, the possible genetic predispositions for cognitive decline. In the distance, she spies a strange girl in a yellow string bikini who unleashes a torrent of anxiety and despair. Russell imbues Juliana with an intriguing mixture of steel and vulnerability that makes the character's journey all the more wistful.
Despite her glib wit and prickly ego, Juliana's mind keeps jumping the tracks in her dealings with her put-upon husband, Ian (Donald Sage Mackay), who Juliana believes is about to divorce her, and daughter Laurel (a beautifully nuanced turn by Carrie Paff), who left home at 15. Though candid and warm at the core, it seems Juliana has developed a hide so tough she has not noticed how vigorously she drives away those who love her.
White, an American Conservatory Theater alum just now on the brink of national acclaim, has crafted a trio of deeply compelling characters. While the nature of this universe is purposely ambiguous as the action skips around in time and place, there's never any doubt that we care about this family. We want Juliana and her loved ones to find their way out of the darkness that has descended upon them.
The playwright deftly keeps the audience guessing about the exact source of Juliana's anguish. Like her, we are left to piece parts of the puzzle together as the past and the present collide.
White has crafted the play with such a keen sense of detail and suspense that even when we grasp some of the clues, the tension remains palpable. Subtle shifts in sound (Brandon Wolcott) and lighting (Eric Southern) enhance the looming shadow of disorientation.
The elusive nature of memory is the key to this thriller, and the universality of the experience is what gives the play such harrowing power. Greco shows off her ability to ground outrageous twists in plot in undeniable honesty and authenticity.
As the mystery unravels, it becomes clear that struggling to get your bearings amid the chaos of life is something all of us have in common with Juliana. That's the devastating realization that sneaks up on you in the play's final moments. White cleverly uses our feelings of doubt to give us a glimpse of what the future may hold.
'the Other place'
By Sharr White
Through: Oct. 7
Where: Magic Theatre,
Building D, Fort Mason
Center, San Francisco
Running time: 1 hour,
20 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $22-$62, 415-441-8822, www.magictheatre.org