"Women usually do not appear unless to provide some sort of illicit service," Juliana Smithton, the drug researcher at the fractured core of Sharr White's intricately disorienting The Other Place, tells the audience while describing a troubling "episode" that took place at a medical conference in the Virgin Islands. "When we do appear, we do not do so in heels, and when we do wear heels — unless we immediately prove we are the smartest people in the room — we are not taken seriously."
It would be hard not to take Juliana Smithton seriously. This is a woman, after all, who holds the patent on a blockbuster dementia drug with sales expected to exceed $1 billion. Here Juliana, portrayed on stage at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis by a superb Kate Levy, has a forceful intelligence — wry, with an easy command of science and a wit honed to denigrate all who would oppose her. Sheathed in sleek skirts, killer heels and a mantle of self-assurance, Juliana has left the lab behind and now jets to tony island resorts where she pitches her cure to rooms full of male docs. Authoritative and acerbic, Juliana is a woman fully in possession of the facts — a stable narrator whose account of everything from her husband's philandering ways to the mental effects of neuron death is beyond reproach.
Or so it would seem.
Juliana becomes distracted during her pitch by a young woman wearing a yellow bikini. "I'm sure she is a prostitute," she says, addressing the audience directly. Then, to the doctors, "Miss, are you a doctor, or are you just here to show someone where it hurts?" The line gets a laugh, but Juliana is rattled. She obsesses over the girl. She loses her train of thought. Then, when the girl vanishes, she is struck dumb, unable to finish the presentation.
Juliana is convinced she has brain cancer. But back home in Boston, her husband, a prominent oncologist named Ian (R. Ward Duffy), is not so sure. There's no denying Juliana, however, who in Levy's incarnation is as convincing in her self-diagnosis as she is persuasive that Ian is having an affair. The couple is living separately, and although Ian persuades her to see another specialist, Juliana's trust has foundered on his infidelity and bald refusal to establish a relationship with their estranged daughter (Amelia McClain), who eloped as a teenager with a member of Juliana's lab (Clark Scott Carmichael).
But as the play continues, unspooling as a tangled thread of memory, fantasy and current action, our faith in Juliana begins to fray. Facts that once seemed undeniable are slowly undermined, and by play's end, Juliana, once so powerful, is reduced to a woman "between the sky and the earth. The past and the future. This place...and the other."
As an exercise in storytelling, The Other Place is well crafted and clever. White is an expert at dismantling a character's elaborate veneer to expose the awful truths that lie beneath. The supporting cast is also impressive as they tiptoe around the formidable Levy, and director Rob Ruggiero keeps the dialogue crisp, using video to great effect with set designer Luke Hegel-Cantarella's unfussy stage.
Still, up until the play's penultimate scene, The Other Place threatens to remain trapped in a professional if somewhat bloodless realm of stagecraft. The action is quick, the dialogue is smart and the cast is terrific, all of which conspire to make White's play deeply engrossing intellectually, if perhaps a bit too reliant on its well-tooled narrative devices. But then, in a pivotal scene toward the end of this brisk 80 minutes, we realize with crushing weight the extent of the main character's fragility. Levy's transformation from mighty to meek becomes tragically complete, and she and McClain deliver a scene so emotionally nimble, tender yet devastating, that we're left gasping for air, our world turned upside-down and our hearts all but broken.