Telling a loved one that she isn’t dying from brain cancer has never been delivered as forebodingly as it is in Sharr White’s engrossing new drama, “The Other Place.”
It isn’t that Ian, an oncologist, wants his wife Juliana, a geneticist, to be ill. But he knows that dementia, the real cause of her symptoms -- memory loss, an inability to summon the names of objects or the conversation she held just a few minutes earlier -- is even less treatable.
It’s also the source of Juliana’s dramatic personality change, which has ravaged the lives of these successful, middle-aged Bostonians played with riveting empathy by Laurie Metcalf and Dennis Boutsikaris.
Ian and Juliana already have survived a child’s long ago disappearance from their “other place” on Cape Cod. That central event has been tearing the fabric of their marriage; Juliana’s illness leaves it in tatters.
“You know, what surprises me almost more than anything else,” Ian tells Juliana when their latest conversation has turned ugly, “is how cruel this thing has made you.”
Juliana, especially as captured with febrile intensity by Laurie Metcalf, is used to being in control. She’s a research scientist who develops drugs to treat the illness she uncomprehendingly is succumbing to.
The one-act play begins with Juliana recalling her most recent sales trip (she’s dropped the pretense of calling them lectures). In the throng of male doctors, she spots a young woman in a yellow string bikini. She begins peppering her talk with offhand jabs at this intruder who eventually disappears.
When a disorienting lapse stops her cold, Juliana ends up in a hospital. She returns home to the care of the man who, she tells her neurologist, is soon to be her ex-husband. As Ian struggles to cope with Juliana’s deterioration, he finds himself jagging between empathy and anger on an emotional trampoline that Dennis Boutsikaris negotiates with appealing nuance.
The final scene is set at the “other place.” It’s a confrontation that reminded me of that moment in “A Beautiful Mind” when the full extent of the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Forbes Nash’s disconnect with reality is revealed.
Eugene Lee’s set, a freeform panel of white rectangles that eventually yields to a realistic living room, lends spatial form to Juliana’s confusion. John Schiapa and especially Aya Cash are superb in multiple roles. Director Joe Mantello imbues a fragmented work with a sense of fluidity.
At the center is Juliana, a woman who will not go gently into the darkness. Like Ian, we are forced to consider the challenge of an illness that so brutally transforms the beloved.
Through April 24 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St. Information: +1- 212-279-4200; http://www.mcctheater.org Rating: ****
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(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)