The Other Place

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Melbourne Theatre Company’s The Other Place, by US playwright Sharr White, offers a glimpse into a brilliant mind in disarray, overcome with both illness and the burden of past trauma.

Geneticist Juliana Smithton (Catherine McClements) is delivering a lecture at a lavish pharmaceutical conference when she suddenly suffers a neurological ‘episode,’ a moment of utter disorientation. Back home, relating the incident to her husband Ian (David Roberts), and then to a specialist, Juliana assuredly self-diagnoses brain cancer. The end in sight, she confesses to Ian that she has been in contact with their long-estranged daughter. They have agreed to reunite at their family home in Cape Cod, she tells him, ‘at the other place.’

As the scenes confidently shift between Juliana’s retelling of the ‘episode’ and its aftermath, there seems no reason to doubt this rational and seemingly resilient doctor. Yet everyone around her treats her with some caution. With counterpoint testimony from Ian, her diagnosis—and sense of herself entirely—is slowly undermined.

White’s play has already enjoyed a successful New York season, and the deftness of his writing is well matched with Nadia Tass’s direction, which focuses primarily on the performances, and is complemented by a minimalist set by Shaun Gurton.

McClements’ wry yet disarmingly vulnerable Juliana is clearly the play’s centre, around which the supporting players merely orbit. But as Juliana’s husband, Roberts is convincingly both powerless and rock-steady as he attempts to guide his spouse towards peace with uncertainty. Heidi Arena and David Whiteley shapeshift as various characters who drift in and out of Juliana’s confused consciousness; Arena is particularly strong as the ‘other’ women (both real and imagined) who populate the ‘other place’ to which Juliana longs to return.

Less successful is the production’s integration of video, which attempts to visualise the weight of Juliana’s memories when McClements’ performance more than suffices. The results are instead slightly saccharine—especially since the mysteries that drive the play’s dramatic first half are all but resolved by the second, accompanied by an unexpected shift in style that carries Juliana’s conflict to a gentler, naturalistic end. Although this means a loss of the great momentum built in the opening scenes, the calmer resolution offered is one that the protagonist’s restless mind deserves.

MTC’s The Other Place is playing at Arts Centre Playhouse until March 2.
For more information and tickets visit: www.mtc.com.au

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