BWW Review: Sharr White's Thought-Provoking THE OTHER PLACE at Tampa Rep
"Why do I say it. Why do I say things like this. Why do I see something young and beautiful and want to just scratch it and scratch it until none of it is left." --Juliana Smith in THE OTHER PLACE
Part of the reason I enjoyed Sharr White's THE OTHER PLACE so much is that it didn't make things easy for the audience. It could have connected all the dots, crossed all the t's, and been about as exciting as plain loose-leaf paper. And if you like your art spoon-fed to you, treating you like a five year old, then perhaps this is not the show for you. But if you respond strongly to beautifully written, thoughtful, adult plays that don't give you a paint-by-numbers answer to things, then THE OTHER PLACE at Tampa Rep is where you need to attend.
White's script about a woman mentally losing her grip makes us question what is real and what isn't. After the show, replaying moments in our heads, we question why some scenes are in the show and what is their overall purpose? There is even a character (unseen) that I'm still trying to grasp; who is it? (I love that, days after seeing the show, I'm still scratching my scalp, attempting to figure out this particular puzzle piece.) The show is a labyrinth of sorts, seamlessly flowing from one scene to the next, from place to place, memory to cloudy memory. It thankfully doesn't answer every question it poses, which is why my respect for it is so high. I find myself constantly rolling my eyes at dramas that are too neat, that wrap everything up like ornate golden paper perfectly fitted to a present gift-wrapped at Barnes and Noble. Too tidy, too boring. THE OTHER PLACE is ironically all over the place, with actors moving like pieces on a giant game board, and thank God for that.
If I remain hesitant to explain the show's plot, then that is purposeful. Relaying the some of the storyline to THE OTHER PLACE can leave reviewers in a pickle. The less said about the plot, the better, so secrets and twists are not given away. Here's a little bit I can share: The story centers on fifty-something Juliana, a scientist at a drug company, who is giving a speech at a convention of neurologists; the speech is interrupted with her thoughts, feelings, recollections both real and imagined. Walking through the stage (and her mind) are her embattled husband, her doctor and her daughter, the latter whose whereabouts are a mystery. But that's all I'll say at this point. Discover the joys of it for yourselves in this smart, well-executed production of an exceptionally written play.
A show like this ultimately shines due to the talent of its small cast. Leading the way at Tampa Rep is Lynne Locher as Juliana. It actually takes awhile to warm to her, but once we do, we are in for quite a ride. This is an emotional tailspin we're witnessing, and some of her reactions to various situations make her not very likable. And Locher gutsily is all in with this very strong performance, emotional warts and all. It's a strenuous workout that we're watching--Locher is onstage for almost all of the show's very fast 90 minutes--and we understand her, even when some of what she does exists in a sort of gray zone.
Equally as strong is Lisa VillaMil in a variety of roles, including the doctor. The show's strongest moment occurs when VillaMil, playing a character that finds herself at first horrified to find a stranger (Juilana) in her house and then realistically empathizing and ultimately comforting her. In this scene, Juliana, unable to use chopsticks, winds up eating Chinese takeout with her hands, grabbing chunks of food like one of the squatting Dawn of Man primitives eating prey in the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But VillaMil's character intervenes, and using chopsticks, feeds Juliana. It's a glorious moment, where the two connect and best of all, the sequence takes its own sweet time, never feeling rushed; I could watch this scene forever.
Larry Corwin plays Ian, Juliana's husband, and he is quit strong in his reactions to his wife, but the performance seems rather one note, with the exception of one brilliant gut-wrenching scene where the actor absolutely nails it. Jon VanMiddlesworth is the fourth cast member and is effective in his brief moments onstage (like VillaMil, he plays a variety of characters).
C. David Frankel's direction is exquisite, overflowing with intelligence and heart--a great combination. Lea Umberger's set is wonderfully minimal, just a table and some chairs (and sheet-covered furniture framing the stage). The painted floor looks like a squiggly brain-scan or the aforementioned game board; at first glance, the design reminded me of the REM "Reckoning" album cover. Jo Averill-Snell's lighting design is brilliantly evocative, almost becoming a character in and of itself.
With Annapurna and THE OTHER PLACE, Sharr White is certainly one of the premier playwrights of the past decade. And this is definitely a thought-provoking show to go out of your way to see, and afterwards, to discuss in depth. Maybe your answers to some of the show's mysteries will be different than mine or your neighbor's. But when it's all over, after you stand for the deserved ovation, you'll want to talk with other audience members about it, to debate and compare notes, and best of all, to share with as many people as you can.
Tampa Repertory Theatre's THE OTHER PLACE plays until June 25th at Studio 120 in the Theatre Center (TAR) on the TampaUSF campus...3837 USF Holly Drive.