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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
One of the most audacious scenes in The Other Place is completely realistic---just two people talking in a room. But in Sharr White's play, now on Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, straightforward storytelling is a jolt.
Most of the time, the show stages the disintegrating mind of Juliana Smithton (Laurie Metcalf), a neurologist whose life is falling apart. As she tries to understand what's wrong with her---brain cancer? dementia?---she blurs real life with memories and hallucinations. Is her husband really leaving her? Did her runaway daughter really return? It's almost impossible for her to know.
Sometimes, we don't know what's real either. Juliana might be giving a talk at a medical conference when her husband Ian (Daniel Stern) suddenly appears, but which event is actually happening? Is she imagining her husband or her PowerPoint presentation?
Eventually, though, White wants us to know what's going on. And that's why we suddenly encounter a realistic scene from Juliana's past, when she has a life-changing night with her husband.
"Up to that point, scene by scene, there'd been a lot of surprising turns, and I thought, in a way, the most surprising turn now would be to take it toward normalcy and naturalism," White says. "Let's take it to a place where it resembles classic American naturalism. Let's give the audience time to breathe and catch up to the story."
It's also crucial for the audience to see Juliana as a human being. Even as we witness the chaos of her mind, we need to decide for ourselves what kind of person she is. The Other Place has been produced several times---the current production is a transfer of MCC Theater's Off-Broadway staging in 2011---and along the way, White has carefully refined what we learn about his character and when.
"Off Broadway, in the very first scene, Juliana brought up brain cancer, and it seemed to be such a siren to people that I felt like the audience got stuck," White says. "They got stuck on certain words like 'brain cancer' and 'oncologist,' so in this version, I pulled those out. Instead of saying, 'Do you think brain cancer is a laughing matter?' now she says, 'Do you think this is a laughing matter?'"
Asked why that's important, White responds, "It keeps the specifics of what's happening to her vague, so we have time to get to know her a little more and wonder about her circumstance. If we know too much right away, it becomes the story of what's wrong with her versus the story of her."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus