One of the great challenges, as well as triumphs, of live theater is the ability to communicate what a character is thinking without overtly saying so. A performer must be so in tune with his or her character that they are able to use every physical nuance and vocal intonation to make an audience experience the interior. How, then, can a performer communicate what is going on inside the mind of a character suffering from mental illness? That’s the challenge playwright Sharr White sets up for himself in the MCC Theater’s production of The Other Place. And despite stalwart Joe Mantello’s sensitive direction, this is also the problem in this wobbly and, ultimately, gimmicky play.
There is a saving grace to this production, however. Place is blessed to have its lead protagonist embodied by the phenomenal Laurie Metcalf, who gives one of the greatest performances of the year.
Metcalf is Juliana Smithton, a renowned, no-nonsense scientist. In her fifties, she has taken her pharmaceutical research and hit the road, speaking at conferences about a new protein therapy that fights mental decay. During one such presentation in St. Thomas, the improbable sight of a young woman in a yellow bikini distracts Juliana to the point of a breakdown.
Once back in the states, Juliana tells us that due to a family history, she believes she is suffering from brain cancer. She’s also facing other turmoil in her private life: her daughter, Laurel, ran away with Juliana’s assistant a decade earlier and has only begun to reemerge. And Juliana has filed for divorce from her husband, Ian (Dennis Boutsikaris, who was also Metcalf’s husband in last season’s glorious but short-lived Brighton Beach Memoirs revival), an oncologist who is cheating on Juliana with her neurologist, Dr. Teller (both Laurel and Dr. Teller, in addition to other roles, are portrayed by Aya Cash in a series of well-defined and distinctive performances).
However, the more we learn about Juliana, the less we feel we actually know about her. Is she right to think her husband is having an affair? Is her self-diagnosis of brain cancer at all accurate? What is to be made of the young woman in the bathing suit, or Juliana’s horribly awkward conversations with the estranged Laurel?
Taken linearly, there isn’t much to the central mystery in Place: what’s eating Juliana Smithton? That’s probably why White tells his story in such jagged terms, flashing back and forth from past to present, from St. Thomas to Juliana’s home and doctors’ office to her second house in Cape Cod (the “other place’ of the title). White offers many revolutions but few revelations, and the explanations he does hint at finally feel a little pat and disappointing. Plenty of style can never compensate for lack of substance, and Mantello cannot save Place, at a slight 80 minutes, from feeling both exhausting and alienating.
There is glory to be had, though, in the style of Eugene Lee’s smart set, a background wall of interlocking empty picture frames that also begin to resemble a DNA double helix, and Justin Townsend’s lighting, which smartly accents Juliana’s suffering, even when the source is undetermined. And Boutsikaris is able to construct a baffled but supportive husband, even when his motivations remain enigmatic.
Despite the written play's flaws, the marvelous Metcalf is what makes Place a can’t-miss event. The actress is able to overcome its organizational deficiencies and pull from a deep place of inner fury, fear and sorrow as she commands the stage. She’s equally moving when bellowing with rage at Dr. Teller and when sitting still, silently longing for the right words to say to Laurel. And she doesn’t fight to be likable, either, which only wins us over even more. As White’s compromised puzzle of a play comes together, the one image that becomes clearest of all is of this transcendent actress making hurt look so good.