The Other Place, by Sharr White. Directed by Tim Fort. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"The great darkness, as I've begun referring to it,
started descending five years ago."
The production of Sharr White's superb play at the Weston Playhouse's second stage at the Weston Rod and Gun Club is the third production I've seen in three years. I've seen Laurie Metcalf, for whom it was written, Marg Helgenberger, and now Susan Haefner. I do not get tired of this play. I find it endlessly fascinating as it deals with dementia and loss, two things I fear most in my life. Each production alters my perception of the concepts of what we lose when we lose our memory, face our fantasies head on, and recall our emotions more than the facts that surround them.
The intimacy of the space in Weston makes an enormous difference, especially with the small cuts in the script that I think I noticed. Each director has given a slightly different focus to the piece and so I cannot be certain that things I think I recall from the other two were missing from this one. The play in Weston feels very complete; there are no gaping holes to be filled; there are no slight skips that one can find, and though the proximity of actors to audience may well have altered my perception here, the play seemed to me to have been tampered with.
Of course this play is about people tampering with facts, training, or retraining, the mind to a reality that is tinted and tainted and timid about realities. It is only natural that director Tim Fort might have focused me differently by altering the play's sensibilities somehow. That's what a director can bring to a piece. In this case whatever he's done the effect on me was tremendous. I wasn't, as before, moved by the dilemma the main character finds herself caught in. Instead I was moved instead by the drama she created for those closest to her. It's a choice. I can't refuse it because it isn't like the first choice made by someone else.
Susan Haefner is a powerful Juliana. She exhibits her power in her femininity rather than in her professional appearance. Juliana is a neurologist who has been studying dementia and Alzheimer's disease. She is making a presentation on a new drug, an experimental one that she both believes in and has accepted money to promote. She is mildly conflicted and refuses to see that is being altered, changed by her career choices and her personal battles with the facts of her own life. Haefner manages all of this brilliantly. The script gives her every opportunity to be sane and professional, and yet as she slips more and more into a world of unexplainable fantasy she takes on more self-assured resonances. Haefner makes this all look and sound so plausible that the reliable sanities of those surrounding her become harder to believe.
Tension is the hallmark of David Bonanno's performance as her husband, Ian. Whether helping or antagonizing he adds a bit of sarcasm to the moment. He officially aids Juliana in her quest for truth, but he hides from her the fact that she is losing it over old issues that have no bearing on her current condition. Bonanno is sometimes a bit over-the-top in his gruffness, but it is clearly the frustration of the character that creates this. For the most part Bonanno plays Ian as he is written, a bit smug and stuffy, a bit loving and protective, a bit sarcastic and non-supportive. This character of multiple characteristics allows Bonanno to play out and play loud and he is forceful where he needs to be and sweetly loving where he can be. It's a complex and well wrought performance.
The same can be said for Tracy Michailidis who plays three roles, a doctor, a teenager and a young woman whose own current traumas should have her screaming for help in her longest and most difficult scene. This actress is adept at playing the overt in each character. They are all well-defined and different and she handles each of them with great skill. In her big scene with Haefner she is at turns insolent and insatiable. Here she is taking as much from the accidental meeting with Juliana as she is protecting herself from. The music the two women make together is lovely, their voices, their arms and their legs entwined with overwhelming need and loving abandon.
Joe Osheroff is the fourth member of the troupe and he plays two roles, both equally well, though they are fairly negligible.
The minimal set designed by Kristen Robinson didn't, for me, add anything to the play. It worked and that's all to the good. Likewise Meredith E. Magoun's costumes were right for the characters and looked fine on the actors, but they were not the sort of costumes one notices. Cory Pattak's lighting is somewhat limited by the performance space and there were some awkward shadows in evidence but I don't see how he could have made it any better. Ben Montagny's sound design worked for the show and that was a good thing.
Tim Fort has delivered a fine production of "The Other Place" and those who see it for the first time will discover in this production a fine realization of a problem play in which the problem is resolvable. They will find excellent actors doing some of the best work in roles that demand more than most. They will also discover within themselves a place where sensitivity cannot be overlooked and that is an enriching experience.
Susan Haefner and David Bonanno; photo: Tim Fort
Susan Haefner and Tracy Michailidis; photo: Tim Fort
The Other Placeplays through August 9 at the Weston Rod and Gun Club,located on Route 100 about 1 and 1/2 miles north of the center of Weston, VT. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-824-5288 or go on line at westonplayhouse.org.