Trouble in Mind
Canadian Stage's The Other Place turns a case of dementia into a psychological thriller.
The Other Place
Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front Street East)
Runs to Feb. 8
The terrifying experience of losing one’s mental faculties has been getting a thorough dramatic workout lately. On screen we have Julianne Moore in Still Alice, giving an Oscar-nominated performance as a linguistics professor confronting early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. And on stage, just this month alone, there have been three plays (Waiting Room, HER2, Piece by Piece) featuring characters with Alzheimer’s or other afflictions of the brain. Make that four, with the opening of The Other Place at Canadian Stage.
Sharr White’s 2013 Broadway play, receiving its Canadian premiere, cannily puts us inside the mind of a 52-year-old woman with early-onset dementia—and possibly mental illness. White’s trick is to have the woman, Juliana Smithton, narrate the first part of her story, giving us an account of a “reality” that, as we slowly discover, may be largely made up of paranoia, delusions, and wishful thinking. We become entangled in a psychological mystery where, at the beginning, we’re as confused as the central character, but also totally intrigued. After the truth emerges, however, the play’s energy evaporates.
Juliana, played at the outset with a tart tongue and steely self-control by Tamsin Kelsey, is—cue the heavy irony—a neurologist. She is also engaged in promoting a drug she’s developed that—more irony—combats dementia. It’s while flogging this pharmaceutical at a convention in the Virgin Islands that she undergoes a strange out-of-body episode, apparently triggered by the sight of a girl in a yellow string bikini.
The episode, Juliana believes, is a harbinger of brain cancer. She wants her husband Ian (Jim Mezon), a leading oncologist, to treat her—even though, she tells us, they are on the verge of divorce. At the same time, the couple’s long-lost daughter, Laurel (Haley McGee), has re-entered Juliana’s life. Laurel turns out to have married Richard (Joe Cobden), Juliana’s former research assistant, and is the mother of twin girls.
We have no reason to doubt any of this, except that both Ian and Cindy (McGee again), the young doctor examining her, keep responding to her in odd ways. Ian is upset and exasperated, while Cindy’s questions are enigmatic. White’s dialogue evokes some of the teasing elliptical strangeness of David Storey’s Home, that classic riddle-play seen at Soulpepper a few seasons ago, only in a more anxious key.
Gradually, between the gaps in Juliana’s narrative, we get glimpses of what is really going on. And finally, most of the truth spills out in a climactic flashback that occurs 10 years previously in Juliana and Ian’s “other place,” a family cottage on Cape Cod.
U.S. playwright White, whose Broadway credits also include last season’s Chekhovian knock-off The Snow Geese, deserves credit for offering a gripping variation on an increasingly familiar theme: the intellectual tragically stricken with dementia. But at the same time, he rather confusingly conflates an organic mental deterioration with a breakdown caused by a trauma in Juliana’s past. We’re not sure if it’s the trauma or the dementia that has brought on her delusions. Again, we’re as muddled as the woman herself.
Much of the play’s New York success hinged on the performance of Laurie Metcalf, who played Juliana in both its 2011 Off-Broadway premiere and again on Broadway—picking up an Obie Award and a Tony nomination in the process. Kelsey, a veteran actress-turned-teacher who has only recently returned to the stage (she starred in the 2012 SummerWorks hit Pietà), is funny and diamond-hard in her early scenes, suckering us with her seeming lucidity. She’s less effective later on, however, when Juliana revisits the Cape Cod property and the tone turns to pathos.
The mighty Mezon is typically forceful as Ian, although he tends to overplay the man’s frustration. He’s like a kettle continually on the point of boiling over. McGee, fresh from her scene-stealing in Helen Lawrence earlier this season, skillfully juggles three characters (the third being a bewildered stranger) and is especially good as a stressed-out and sarcastic Laurel—her testy phone conversation with Kelsey’s distracted Juliana succinctly summarizes their mother-daughter relationship. Joe Cobden does his best with a series of negligible walk-on parts.
Daniel Brooks’s direction is surprisingly uneven. At times his cross-cutting between scenes is awkward, and Judith Bowden’s sterile set, with its high white walls, does him no favours. It works fine as a backdrop for a convention hall and a doctor’s office, but fails to make the transition to an ancestral Cape Cod cottage. Instead, those scenes look like they’re taking place in a generic hotel room with a well-stocked bar.
The blank walls do, however, prove a good canvas for the projections of Jamie Nesbitt. It’s Nesbitt who furnishes Brooks with his coup de théâtre—a beautiful video coda in which Juliana’s obsession with that bikini-clad girl is suddenly cast in a new light. It’s the kind of quietly powerful moment that makes you forget the play’s flaws, leaving you instead with a lump in your throat.