The current offering at the Central Square Theater (a co-production by Nora Theatre and Underground Railway Theater), Sharr White’s “The Other Place”, was first produced off-Broadway in 2011 and subsequently (a full two years later) in White's Broadway debut, when it was nominated for a Tony Award in the category of Best Actress, although it lasted just sixty-one performances. As directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary (Associate Artistic Director at New Rep in Watertown) and starring Debra Wise (Artistic Director of Underground Railway Theater) as the main protagonist, narrator Juliana Smithton, it’s obviously intended as just that, a star vehicle. The story centers on Smithton, a Boston-based drug company scientist who is certainly a complex character. Married to a famous oncologist Ian (David DeBeck) with whom she had a daughter Laurel (Angie Jepson) who was intimate with one of her mother’s former colleagues, Richard (Jaime Carrillo), she attended a pharmaceutical conference in the Virgin Islands to speak about a new drug she has discovered for the treatment of a form of dementia. Treated herself (for what she fears is brain cancer) by Dr. Cindy Teller (also played by Jepson), she finds her own intelligence is her greatest asset and her largest burden. Along the way, there are mysterious revelations that don’t really prove to be very revelatory, as we begin to comprehend what’s really going on here. A theatergoer with any sense of irony will see the punch line coming a mile away.
Other plays have dealt successfully with women coping with various manifestations of illness (such as stroke in “Wings”, ovarian cancer in “Wit”, or mental instability in “Proof”). In this very brief work (just ninety minutes without an intermission), White ends up juggling one too many plot points. It’s a challenge to a reviewer since it depends on many gradual contradictions that can’t be discussed, even though most audience members should see, not long into the play, exactly where it’s going. They surely will, if they’ve been paying attention to several clues dropped fairly frequently, and, unfortunately, quite obviously. What eventually transpires at the end of the play comes as no surprise, since it’s been telegraphed all along. In the end, what seemed all too transparently predictable is just that. Even the title serves to help give away the secrets the playwright thinks he has successfully withheld.
Fortunately, this production has a lot of positive aspects about it, starting with O’Leary’s expert direction and the radiant acting by Wise and her co-stars, especially DeBeck as her understanding husband, backed up by Jepson and Carrillo in multiple roles. The technical crew contribute some very atmospheric elements, from the clever Set Design by Janie E. Howland to the Lighting Design by Chris Brusberg and the Sound Design by David Remedios.
All of these professionals, on and off stage, are working at the top of their form. It’s a tribute to both theatrical companies that they almost succeed in overcoming the fundamental flaw of a mystery play with very little mystery. The true mystery is why anyone would consider this a work worthy of being produced.