A biological researcher-inventor-entrepreneur is giving a lecture and sales pitch in St. Thomas (Virgin Islands) and says she suddenly notices a woman in a yellow bikini amid all the men in suits. The bikini-clad girl unnerves, disturbs and fascinates her. These elements recur in various forms throughout the Capital Stage play “The Other Place,” leaving the audience with that elusive quality of a puzzle to be deciphered.
Suddenly, this researcher (Juliana) is consulting her neurobiologist, mentioning divorce and debating how to refer to her husband. These two brief sequences open “The Other Place,” presenting a kind of mystery. How are these two scenes intertwined? We wonder about the professional audience of men, the mysterious woman in the yellow bikini and the family life of the central character. The play keeps asking us to search for the secret to the mystery, to understand the setting, to explicate the Other Place, to put together the various scenes like pieces of a puzzle, to make sense of life.
Melinda Parret as Juliana, the central character, is a masterful all-present, commanding character as she was in another central role as Nora in the recent Sacramento production of “Doll’s House, Part II.” Juliana’s on stage the entire time, the center of attention, the center of the mystery. Despite her high intellect and off-putting sense of humor and satirical conversation, she is disturbed by a fundamental human loss, the disappearance of her teenage daughter years earlier. Her husband Ian is played by Jonathan Rhys Williams with artful authority and compassion and sympathy, even though his role and commentary is constantly overshadowed by his wife’s, and overshadowed also because his back is frequently turned to the audience as he debates with her.
To her doctor, Juliana describes the loss of her daughter as death by a thousand cuts – in vivid and disturbing detail. Juliana is articulate, a bit brittle, but questioning her supreme sense of assurance and expertise as when she says in the opening scene “in spite of everything that’s happened, when I add up the balance sheet of my life, the numbers say I am happy.” How can we assess that suggestive analysis? But Juliana is also radically witty; so she opens her commentary on a breakthrough drug to a gathering of doctors in a golf resort on St. Thomas with, “I am going to walk you through this remarkable piece of work before you go hit a bucket of balls into protected sea turtle habitat.”
Sometimes this woman is fearfully articulate, but in another scene she fumbles around for a word and says to Ian, “I had a . . .a . . . THINGY.” Something is amiss here.
As in much modern theater, “The Other Place” offers minimal set furnishing – a few chairs, an occasional table. But there is a constantly changing background of moving windows and projections that either illustrate, juxtapose, or counterpoint the present setting or the characters’ speeches – with clouds, moving windows, slides of microscopic forms.
As a high-level experimental researcher, Juliana disconcertingly presents her slides in pants and high heels. But she also offers a minor dissertation on the effect of professional women in high heels: “When we do wear heels – unless we immediately prove we are the smartest people in the room – we are not taken seriously.” Sometimes it seems she’s addressing the professional group, but she’s also directly addressing us, since her St. Thomas audience is never shown.
We see slides of human chromosomes as well as drug molecules accompanied by commentary on RNA, APOE, folded proteins, and a bit more. In an NPR interview, playwright Sharr White discussed in detail his use of science and implied it might pose barriers for some. Still, sometimes it’s hard for the audience not to let the eyes (and ears) glaze over at this presentation, despite Juliana’s wit and intelligence. The disease this drug is addressing is never explicitly named – it’s a part of the mystery.
But White has commented that the intellectually endowed feel optimistic that “their sheer intelligence can protect them from all manner of harm.” Juliana may be a noted researcher, but she is also a drug salesman; Identamyl is a “blockbuster protein therapy with sales projected to exceed $1 billion dollars by month 10 of its debut year alone.” Her mastery of science is undercut by her hard-edge business acumen and focus on money. Despite Juliana’s success and intellect, the actress makes us feel the character is always on edge, about to attack or quarrel with someone else.
All that we see and hear is compressed into 80 minutes without intermission. And the nonstop quality is a bit dizzying, as the scenes shift rapidly and often inexplicably. From St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands to a house and doctor’s office on the East Coast, to a telephone call with her daughter Laurel at some undisclosed location, to yet another Virgin Island. We are never certain just where we are or what exactly has happened. The play keeps pushing the puzzle at us. Despite White’s sophistication and the excellent acting and production, perhaps for some the solution will seem a bit too obvious.
If you go
“The Other Place” by Sharr White
Where: Capital Stage at 2215 J St.
Cast and crew: Directed by Michael Stevenson, and starring Kirk Blackinton, Jennifer Martin, Melinda Parret, and Jonathan Rhys Williams.
When: The play runs through June 1 and offers performances Wednesday and Thursday at 7, Saturday and Sunday nights at 8, with matinees Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2.
Tickets: Tickets range from $30 to $42. The box office phone number is 916-995-5464.