The Other Place is a fascinating depiction of a woman and her husband coming to terms with an illness whose unknown presence has had devastating effects on their marriage. Or has it? One of the most profoundly interesting elements in this piece is the way it navigates the question of cause - is it the illness or is it the person? It is a conundrum that cannot always be answered but its affect on the human heart can be devastating. While this production focuses more on the questions than the effect, it is riveting.
In this transfer of an acclaimed production by Manhattan Theater Company to Broadway, some cast changes have been made but the wonderful Laurie Metcalf remains in place as Juliana. Although her committed performance could be enough, luckily there is a strong enough ensemble here that the entire cast fills the production. Juliana, a scientist, has spent years of research on a drug that she is now acting as representative for. As it approaches distribution, it would seem that years of hard work and grim determination have paid off. Yet as the play progresses, both how she and we interpret the events presented becomes less clear and more disturbing. Hints are dropped in minor asides that have breathtaking effect once more detail and context is later given for these incidents. Much of the production has a delayed impact, a sort of retrospective horror as understanding occurs, and that experience is so against all expectations for an “illness play”. Plays about illness usually involve gut wrenching emotion, stages of grief, heroism, weighty realizations with the medical staff either demonized or lionized, and we all walk out of the theater utterly spent from emotional pain. That is not this play. There is a couple struggling, a broken relationship with their child, and a doctor caught between her colleague and his wife. Many human moments occur, mostly concise, that in themselves don’t create big, theatrical moments. But they do add up to a quietly terrifying portrait of all that we don’t know about life and who we are.
That said the production does have a very cool, focused look and feel until about two thirds of the way through, when we go to the “other place”. The beginning of the production feels strongly structured and deliberate and a bit weighted by thought. That works well but when suddenly there are warm tones and deep emotions, as happens here, it feels like there’s a different play afoot. And it is unclear if this shift is intended to cast doubt on what’s gone before or what is happening now. There are wonderful scenes and performances in this section but it is so very different and is hard to reconcile. Then near the end is a very hopeful and possibly fantastical scene that relates to the drug, whose joyous “it will all be better” tone utterly threw my understanding of the narrative. Also, while it is a dramatic scene that over 5 million Americans and their families would be thrilled by, the fact that it just ain’t so, became upsetting - outside of the play. There are challenges within vagaries of this narrative that pre-empt a climatic effect but the power of the many moments does stay. It is a production that retrospectively I have been more affected by than when I was in the theater.
The Other Place is unlikely to be a place you have been to before, but it is very much worth going.