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BWW Review: Disorienting Play, Tour-de-Force Performance: THE OTHER PLACE at The REP

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It's hard to comment on Sharr White's 2012 play The Other Place, now in a REP Stage regional premiere production, without spoilers, because the very premises of the play are not immediately understood, nor indeed are they fully understood until the penultimate scene. So let me proceed in a very gingerly fashion.

The protagonist, Juliana (Julie-Ann Elliott, pictured above), is a scientist turned pharmaceutical promoter. We encounter her first giving a sales pitch to a group of junketing physicians in the Virgin Islands. And then various things go wrong with the lecture, which has to be abandoned, in a context that confuses both her and us. Among the contextual questions: Is she getting divorced from her husband Ian (Nigel Reed) or not? Is she actually on the phone with her son-in-law (one of the characters portrayed by Scott Ward Abernethy) and daughter (Maggie Robertson) or not? What is the significance of "the other place," a Cape Cod cottage that the family once owned - and does the family still own it?

What we do know for sure about the play, and from fairly early on, is that it is a tour-de-force for the actress who portrays Juliana. I've not seen other productions, but I'm sure she's one of the best. Again, it's tough to be specific without giving things away. Generally speaking, therefore, Juliana is called on to deliver a huge range of emotions, sharp at some times, pathetic at others. She must be violent, querulous, authoritative, analytical, disoriented, witty, nicotine-deprived, paranoid, serene ... etc., etc., etc. She must even wolf down what looks like a complete Chinese carryout dinner. Ms. Elliott seems to have this mercurial role firmly in hand.

The one piece of context that is clear nearly from the outset is that before the beginning of the action, the family has suffered the kind of wound a family never entirely recovers from, and that this wound will probably still be around after the action draws to a close. Efforts to escape it shape the ordeal that Juliana and her husband, and others drawn into their story, mostly portrayed by Maggie Robertson (in roles other than the daughter), must undergo. The surprise (and surprisingly upbeat) resolution at the end suggests that the family has come to better terms with the wound.

The use of Ms. Robertson in all this is interesting. I am no great fan of doubling, using one actor for multiple parts. (I acknowledge how unfashionable, how commercially out-of-touch, this makes me; another discussion for another time.) But here it appears that the choice to double Ms. Robertson as the couple's daughter, as a treating physician, and as an innocent bystander thrust into the couple's story by what amounts to happenstance, are quite deliberate on Sharr White's part. The roles are written for one performer, collectively identified only as The Woman. Very little effort is invested in making the characters who comprise The Woman look different from each other, and indeed they all turn up in a signature color (yellow). We in the audience are meant to run them together in our minds, just as (perhaps) Julia may be doing with them at certain times. I'm not sure if that's a wise choice in a show with so much ambiguity, but it certainly keeps the audience on its toes. It is possible that playing three characters deliberately not physically distinct from each other may be more of a feat than playing three quite distinct ones. In any event, Ms. Robertson rises to the occasion.

Nigel Reed, who seems to be a regular at the REP, does his always-workmanlike job, in this instance breathing life into a character that is more of a foil for Juliana than a fully-realized role of its own. The husband is called upon to be patient, exasperated, and pained - and that's about it - and he must do it for ninety minutes. As I have already commented, this play is someone else's tour-de-force.

And in keeping with that characterization, it must be said that the plotting and the organization of this play are in large measure what it is "about." As Juliana struggles, so the audience struggles, to gain a fundamental understanding of what is happening, and the solving of that puzzle is in some sense the play. It explores the particulars of one family's, but more particularly one person's passage through hellish circumstances and hellish confusion to a place with some kind of perspective. That may not be every audience member's cup of tea, but it is what the play mostly has to offer.

It is my cup of tea, let me add, and I think it also appealed to a large swath of the audience, who emerged at the end buzzing happily about how to fit this or that piece of the puzzle into the whole.

From a technical end, the show demonstrated anew the REP's solid professional polish. Joseph W. Ritsch's direction was unexceptionable, and the setting by Nathaniel Sinnott and the lighting by Connor Mulligan were superb. I've seen footage of earlier productions, and can report that each seems to have made different choices with the set, and I liked those made here, even if the meaning of much of the setting will be confusing until the penultimate scene. As to the lighting, involving, among other things, projections on draperies and robot spotlights, it drew raves from a stage tech professional who attended with me. While I am not qualified to be quite so discerning, I thought the occasional showiness with the lights was illuminating in the more conventional sense, helping us feel and understand the drama.

The Other Place is on a short run, so go see it soon.

The Other Place, by Sharr White, directed by Joseph W. Ritsch, through September 25, 2016, presented by The REP Stage, at the Horowitz Viaual and Performing Arts Center Studio Theatre, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD 21055. Tickets $15-$40, https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/dept/625, 443-518-1000. Adult language, intense situations, suggested physical violence.

Photo credit: Katie Simmons-Barth


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