The Other Place

Dementia and an angry neurologist take the stage at Profiles Theatre.

George Infantado, Steve Silver, and Lia D. Mortensen in Sharr White's The Other Place, directed by Joe Jahraus, at Chicago's Profiles Theatre.
George Infantado, Steve Silver, and Lia D. Mortensen in Sharr White's The Other Place, directed by Joe Jahraus, at Chicago's Profiles Theatre.
(© Michael Brosilow)

Part medical thriller and part domestic drama, playwright Sharr White's The Other Place tries to take audiences into the terrifying abyss of dementia as it slowly tightens its grip on a neurologist who has spent her entire adult life studying the brain.

White’s attempt at crafting a first-person perspective even as that person's memories and identity fade is intriguing. But in the Profiles Theatre production, under the usually steady hand of director Joe Jahraus, The Other Place never fully (or even partially) transcends the status of overwrought melodrama. As Julianna Smithton (Lia D. Mortensen) fights the encroaching oblivion that comes with a vast neuron die-off, The Other Place settles into a rut of hair-tearing, chest-thumping anguish and becomes a stridently one-note, one-dimensional tale.

As White’s plot follows Julianna’s descent into the dementia she’s spent career studying, it becomes clear that she’s not a reliable narrator. Is Julianna’s estranged daughter alive or dead? Why does Julianna all but foam at the mouth whenever her former lab assistant is mentioned? And what, precisely, is the significance of the Cape Cod vacation home that is the titular locale? It’s tough to care about any of these questions because White hasn’t so much penned a compelling story as he has a series of emotional outbursts.

Moreover, the plot falters badly in its penultimate scene, when Julianna does something (to be any more specific would result in a spoiler) that in real life would most certainly result in an intervention by the local police. Nobody calls the cops on Julianna. Instead, the aggrieved party gently feeds her Chinese food.

White reveals Julianna's condition gradually — maybe too gradually. For the first half of the 95-minute piece, she seems like no more than an entitled, emotionally abusive egomaniac. Her cruelty is off the charts, as she belittles, condescends to, and yells at everybody in her orbit. Some of her targets are people she ostensibly loves the most, including her long-suffering spouse Ian (Steve Silver). Others are picked seemingly at random, as when she viciously goes after a girl in a yellow bikini who makes the mistake of showing up (in said swimwear) at a lecture on a promising new drug for dementia.

Jarhaus would have done well to rein Mortensen in during the earlier scenes. Instead, she starts at a strident, rage-fueled pitch and flatlines there for most of the production. Julianna may have a degenerative neurological disease rather than selfishness and anger management issues, but as a character, she suffers from a total failure to develop. Or so she does until the final few scenes when she abruptly has an epiphany of self-awareness that's sudden, complete, and utterly unbelievable.

As Ian, Silver has a similarly arc-less journey. Rather than forming a solid, individual character, he delivers a series of reactions, all of them delivered at a similar pitch, covering an emotional spectrum that ranges from A to B. Autumn Teague is similarly underwritten, as a young mother who may or may not be Julianna and Ian's estranged daughter.

The production plays out on a serviceable if unmemorable set by Keenan Minogue, aided by similarly generic projections by Smooch Medina. As it moves from a lecture hall in St. Thomas to Julianna and Ian's New York condo to Cape Cod, The Other Place fails to make much of a visual impression.

White has succeeded in one element here, and that's in illuminating the disorienting lens of Julianna's mind. The unreliability of Julianna’s narration becomes clear to the audience gradually, with Julianna and the audience discovering in tandem that her version of things is often skewed and incorrect.

That said, The Other Place never succeeds in making you care much about Julianna or those around her. Brain disease is tough but not impossible to effectively dramatize. Here, however, White succeeds only in making subpar medical mystery.

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The Other Place

Closed: April 5, 2015