TAMPA — It's an anxiety most of us dread, if we allow ourselves to think of it at all. What happens when the brain that looks out for the body — and itself — starts to deteriorate?
That is the question posed in The Other Place, Sharr White's provocative one-act with which Tampa Repertory Theatre closes its sixth season. The play had a Broadway run in 2013, sinking its hooks into audiences with an eminently coherent narration of one woman's descent.
The irony, or one of many ironies, is the position of Juliana Smithton, a research neurologist for a pharmaceutical company whose expertise is dementia. She is giving a lecture on the subject in the Virgin Islands when she becomes distracted by a woman who has entered wearing a yellow bikini. Thus begins her slide. The rest of the 90-minute show, directed by Tampa Repertory's producing artistic director, C. David Frankel, pits Juliana's perceptions of her present and her past against those of her oncologist husband and grown daughter.
This is a strong production, an example of how a theater group can take two chairs and two small tables, and out of that otherwise empty space create an experience. It could not happen without the full range of emotion and sharp facets of personality shown by Lynne Locher as Juliana. While three other cast members contribute critically, nearly all of the narrative structure is built around her, and that's a good thing.
Other characters emerge and fade back, a reflection of the solipsistic universe Juliana inhabits. There's a daughter she hasn't seen in years (Lisa VillaMil), who speaks on the phone reluctantly and in a way that reflects doubt and distance. The mother's instinct is to lash out, either at her daughter or a son-in-law (Jon VanMiddlesworth) who used to work for her. There's a price to pay for this estrangement, the ability to even meet her twin granddaughters.
For most of the play (but significantly not all), other people angle into life only at their point of their own need or job description, which is perhaps only a slight exaggeration of a normal person's working life. Yet that apparent estrangement might itself be a delusion; family members who quarrel are at least engaged, and a troublesome engagement is better than none.
In this struggle and a journey toward diagnosis she is joined by her oncologist husband, Ian (Larry Corwin), who she believes is having an affair, and whose tepid manner reflects the dwindling candle power of their relationship. Against these stark facts lies an idyllic place, a Cape Cod home they sold 10 years ago.
Scenes flip continually through stage lighting by Jo Averill-Snell, the entire frame of the problem dipping in and out of shifting realities that increasingly look like the state of her own mind. Skillful transitions between present and past, and between the disintegrating relationships and her inner life, allow the character to reflect on experiencing astral projection, identifying a self outside of the body, around the same time a doctor is giving her cognitive tests, asking her to recite disconnected words from memory.
Periodically the narrative flashes back to her lecture, with images on projected on the walls of the genes, peptides and proteins that regulate our mental state. All the while she is pitching a new drug for dementia that slows the "cascade of neuron death" in the brain's hippocampus, the seat of memory. After her confusion forces her to halt the talk, she returns to Boston, ready to face what she believes is a brain tumor. Yet this apparent bravery might further represent the subtle gamesmanship of self-deception, in that for her, settling for an aggressive cancer beats dementia with a longer shelf life.
In the meantime, Locher reveals the full range of Juliana's humanity, the character most vulnerable, who never loses a caustic sense of humor, who is capable of remorse. It's the others we experience in fragments. Scene changes are accomplished quickly, on a generous floor space designed by Lea Umberger, painted by Sierra Umberger with swirling designs that could represent brain cells or galaxies. A resolution comes late in the show courtesy of a literary device, a bit of visible structure that's touching even if hard to believe.
A key point also comes later on, as Juliana reflects on her own expertise on the brain: "If I was suffering dementia, I would know it, wouldn't I?"
It's a good question, one of many that makes The Other Place thought provoking.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.