Trust nothing you see or hear until about halfway through the riveting, complex puzzle that is Sharr White’s The Other Place, now getting its first Los Angeles production, and a superb one at that, at North Hollywood’s 99-seat-plan Road Theatre.
Not that pharmaceutical company scientist Dr. Julia Smithton (Taylor Gilbert) seems anything but the most credible of narrators when first we see her introducing a new miracle drug to her predominately male fellow conventioneers down Virgin Islands way.
Tropical the island of St. Thomas may well be, but are sunshine, blue water, white sand, and swaying palm trees enough to explain how a “young, buoyant” yellow-string-bikini-clad blonde finds herself seated alongside the professionals attending Julia’s presentation?
The beach bunny’s incongruous presence amongst a sea of Old Boy suits and ties is our first clue that something might not be quite right in what Julia is recounting. It will not be our last.
A series of meetings and encounters fill us in on Julia’s back story. Or perhaps they don’t.
There’s Julia’s getting-to-know-you consultation with neurobiologist Dr. Cindy Teller (Danielle Stephens) during which she reveals marital woes with her estranged oncologist husband Ian (Sam Anderson).
There’s also the prickly phone call Julia has with her daughter Laurel’s much older husband Richard (Dirk Etchison), who informs his mother-in-law in no uncertain terms that Laurel has no intention of talking with Mom or letting her see her twin granddaughters, now or ever. And there’s Julia’s latest sparring match with Ian, whose philandering would appear to be the cause of the long-marrieds’ separation.
Little by little, however, inconsistencies begin to appear in Julia’s narrative. She has self-diagnosed a brain tumor as the cause of whatever memory lapses or glitches she might be experiencing, but medical tests suggest otherwise. Ian refuses to believe that Julia’s conversations are anything but figments of her imagination. We begin to wonder whether Ian might in fact not be the unfaithful louse Julia has described to Dr. Teller. And throughout Julia’s journey is her desire to return to the family’s Cape Cod beach house, “the other place” that gives White’s play its title.
To reveal anything more that this about White’s Möbius strip of a play would be to violate The Reviewer’s Oath, and so I will leave it up to you to separate fact from fiction with a promise that your lips, too, will remain sealed.
What can be discussed, not only here but in word-of-mouth conversations likely to keep seats filled throughout The Other Place’s stay at The Road Theatre’s “other place” on Magnolia, are the production’s absolutely brilliant performances under Andre Barron’s assured, nuanced direction.
As Juliana, Gilbert does the kind of award-caliber work that marked her Best Lead Actress Scenie-winning star turns in Backwards In High Heels and Madagascar. Anger, despair, pride, meanness, intelligence, and heartbreaking helplessness—all this and more is there in a dramatic tour-de-force that deserves to be seen, savored, and celebrated.
The magnificent Anderson offers powerful support as Ian, and never more so than when a deep well of emotion rises suddenly to the surface when the cancer specialist is confronted with the realities Juliana is now facing.
Stephens is simply marvelous in three very different roles—as the efficient, businesslike Dr. Teller, as the angry, resentful Lauren, and most movingly as a woman who goes from confusion and outrage at the presence of a stranger in her home to a daughter’s caring and concern.
Etchison has considerably less to do in his brief scenes as Lauren’s husband Richard and as Bobby (whose vocation won’t be revealed here), but what he has to do he does very well indeed.
Kaitlyn Pietras’s scenic and projection design not only take us to The Other Place’s many locales, but give us an insight into Juliana’s thoughts and feelings, designs complemented by Pablo Santiago’s topnotch lighting and David B. Marling’s multilayered sound. Michèle Young’s costumes fit each character’s personality to a T.
The Other Place is produced by Chet Grissom, Kevin Shipp, and Michael Thomas-Gisgar. Ann Hearn is assistant director. Maurie Gonzalez is stage manager.
Theatergoers who know the Road Theatre only for its longtime upstairs digs at the Lankershim Arts Center owe it to themselves to discover the the company’s state-of-the-arts “Other Place” inside the NoHo Senior Arts Colony on Magnolia.
The Other Place is well worth a visit.
The Road Theatre, NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.
February 20, 2015
Photos: Michèle Young