Here’s a challenge: go see the Jewel Theatre Company’s The Other Place, playing through Feb. 16, and try not to confront your own worst fears. Written eight years ago by Sharr White, the play is briskly dispatched by a quartet of actors in a series of interlocking vignettes totaling a mere 90 minutes, no intermission.
Dedicated research scientist Julianna Smithton (Julie James) has developed a life-changing drug, and as the play opens we meet her giving a presentation to a conference of colleagues. Poised, articulate, and acid-tongued, Smithton is aided by big-screen scientific illustrations as she explains how the exciting discovery will work. And in various asides and vignettes, she also reveals that she’s in the midst of a divorce, hasn’t seen her daughter in many years, and has just experienced an “episode.”
The play’s unfolding structure keeps us always slightly off-balance as the scenes cut from Smithton’s presentation to her meeting with a medical therapist to her wildly histrionic encounters with her husband Ian. We also learn about the family’s Cape Cod summer home—the “other place”—and events that may or may not have transpired there to rupture the family’s equilibrium. It’s apparent that something is coming unglued as The Other Place drills through domestic upheaval, the trust between longtime partners, delusion, denial, and one woman’s indomitable quest for a scientific breakthrough to justify her career.
As the scenes swiftly change, we begin to realize what may or may not be going on, and the various points of view that each demand plausibility. But we, too, start coming unglued—we don’t know who or what to believe. For my money, that’s exactly what theater should deliver: conflicting points of view that shake us out of our comfort zones.
The disturbing puzzles that fill the minimalist sets of this production only let up at the very end. And yes, I am being purposely obscure; no way am I going to compromise your experience by spelling out specifics. First-weekend audiences were squirming—kudos to director Susan Myer Silton. However mordantly funny, the drama plunges into disturbing territory. The script’s pungent (very adult) language is disarming. Like old age, it’s not for sissies. Think Edward Albee, whose George and Martha occasionally haunt this script.
Everything in The Other Place depends upon the strength of the central actress to bring Julianna Smithton to life. We must be captivated from the very beginning—only with our commitment to this character, her words and actions, will the play be able to work its magic and fling us into emotional disarray.
And in James, this play has a deft embodiment of the mercurial, richly confused central figure.
She commands the stage from the very moment she strides to the conference podium in tailored trousers and purple high heels. Part Annette Bening, part Klute-era Jane Fonda, James has bravura to burn. The play works because we are completely hers, we believe her judgments, her outrages, her doubts, and ultimately her distress. Some of the transitions required to move us into darker dramatic straits come too suddenly. But when the emotional color of the script changes, or at least begins to flicker, we are thrown against the wall.
This isn’t warm and fuzzy theater. There’s plenty of humor and sarcasm, but the play provides something a whole lot tastier: food for thought. In it, we find our own fears displayed for dissection. James has able support in this endeavor from Audrey Rumsby, playing multiple roles with timing and precision. As Ian, Julianna’s distraught and irritated husband, Shaun Carroll makes a stalwart foil.
The Other Place is intense, unsettling, and short. Julie James is masterful. I dare you to go see it.
Jewel Theater Company’s “The Other Place” runs through Feb. 16 at the Colligan Theater. jeweltheatre.net.