Sharr White’s “The Other Place” captures a powerful actress in her prime. This critic-pleasing play’s first New York production, back in 2012, which eventually moved to Broadway, starred Laurie Metcalf. Its O.C. premiere, now playing at Chance Theater, has lured the mesmerizing Jacqueline Wright to Anaheim.
Wright’s role, Juliana Smithton, a formidable 52-year-old neurologist, is not for the faint of heart. The script puts this unfortunate woman — and the audience along with her — through a sequence of brutal recognition that flays her down to the bone before propping her up on wobbly legs and shoving her into an unpromising future. After Wright took her bow, on the night I was there, I was startled not to see a team of EMTs rushing backstage to resuscitate her.
Unreliable narrators are less common in plays than in novels, where the reader’s access to contradictory perspectives is easier to control. But White’s script effectively situates us from the outset inside Juliana’s reality. Even if we don’t sympathize with her or even like her, we have no choice — at least at first — but to believe her.
We meet Juliana at a medical convention, where she’s giving a sales pitch for the dementia drug she is developing. Polished, tough-talking, she’s comfortable on her own in a world of male doctors; as she points out with brittle jocosity, most of the other women who attend medical conventions are sex workers. So she’s startled and annoyed to spot one — dressed, for some reason, in a yellow bikini — in her audience. She makes a few jokes at the interloper’s expense, then feels guilty about making them, and before she knows it, her presentation has ground to a halt and she’s in a doctor’s office being quizzed about her onstage breakdown. She’s not a cooperative patient. When the doctor (Krystyna Ahlers) asks if she’s been “flirting with” suicidal thoughts, Juliana sarcastically retorts: “Dating them, actually, but they won’t put out.”
Juliana has diagnosed herself with brain cancer, so she can’t understand why her oncologist husband, Ian, isn’t treating her. Or why he has filed for divorce, for that matter. In her panic, she reaches out to her daughter, Lauren (Ahlers again), from whom she and Ian have long been estranged. Ten years ago, when Lauren was only 15, she ran away from home. Now, tentatively, mother and daughter begin to discuss the possibility of reconciliation — maybe at the family’s beach house, which they have always called the Other Place.
But when Juliana tells Ian about this possibility, he responds unenthusiastically, even skeptically. Why is he so unwilling to talk about his daughter? Why doesn’t he want to see Lauren again or to meet his granddaughters?
A mystery whose answers lie in the past, “The Other Place” has to catch the audience up on a lot of back story. It does so by pulling at the threads of Juliana’s narrative until it dissolves to reveal a different one — then pulling that apart too. Director Matthew McCray manages the mounting revelations so deftly that the audience remains as off-balance as Juliana herself. He is assisted by Megan Hill’s unobtrusive set, the dreamlike video projections by Nick Santiago, and an East Coast rainstorm by sound designer Cricket S. Myers that had me reaching for an umbrella. And although many of the supporting roles are a bit underwritten — Philip David Black, playing assorted men, gets no more than a few minutes of stage time — the actors fill out even the sketchiest outlines persuasively.
Once the play has laid all of its cards on the table, it doesn’t seem entirely sure what to do with them. First, it drops in a new character (played by Ahlers again, now with a British accent) who narrowly avoids sinking the whole ship; having navigated these straits, it tries out a number of potential endings before settling on one. Fortunately, it’s the one that works. I left with tears in my eyes and a sense of gratitude for whoever laid out the nice straight roads in Anaheim — since my reeling brain wasn’t quite up to any more twists and turns.