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“Not being myself is, oddly, who I am now.”
This terrifying irony — and terrifying truth — and terrifying mystery — comes from a woman who has spent her high profile career as a neurologist studying dementia. And then she finds, in the middle of delivering a major lecture to a roomful of physicians about a new drug to cure dementia, that she cannot continue. She is having an “episode.” The Other Place by Sharr White is a harrowing, fascinating drama, and Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio production is a compelling one. Dan Olmstead directs.
Juliana (Jane Ridley) is sometimes nasty, sometimes funny, sometimes desperate, and sometimes pitiable. Her husband (Johnnie Hobbs Jr.) is an oncologist who is both exasperated, frightened, and sympathetic. His wife insists that things that cannot be true are true, and since many of those things involve their daughter who ran away at 15, never to be seen again, this is painful trespass.
But we meet the daughter (Adrienne S. Wells, who plays two additional roles, distinguishing each with precision). We hear and see their phone calls. We meet her husband (Tim Dugan). We hear their twin girls splashing in the bathtub. If they are figments of Juliana’s mind, where are we, the audience? How can we know what’s real if the brain that is providing the information is malfunctioning? The plot reveals itself as a puzzle filled with ambiguities.
Ridley and Hobbs create a richly textured and absolutely believable marriage. We watch their relationship subtly change as her mind grows more and more unstable. He becomes exasperated, then desperate, then, finally, resigned and kind.
Adding to the drama’s realism is Mark Valenzuela’s excellent sound design: annoying loud Mahler, drenching rain, ambient hum. More might have happened with J. Dominic Chacon’s lighting as we shift from Cape Cod to St. Croix, and Roman Tatarowicz’s set design seems muddled; seen through screens, flowers seem to belong nowhere.
The play’s title refers to the couple’s summer house on Cape Cod, where the family used to spend every weekend. When Ridley’s Juliana turns up there, mistaking the new owner of the house for her daughter, she seems so needy, so heartbroken. And yet, the next minute, she can snap out of it and wryly advise the stranger to change the locks since there’s no telling if she might return. It becomes clear that “the other place” is where you go when you go out of your mind.
What, When, Where
The Other Place. Through Oct. 30, 2016 at the Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on Three, 825 Walnut St., Philadelphia. (215) 574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.
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