Sharr White's "The Other Place," in its current mounting at Dragon Productions, will linger in your thoughts long after show's end, with topical relevance both moving and disturbing. Even though it has much humor, the play is basically an homage: a love letter to someone lost, resonant with memory and melancholy.
Juliana (Judith Ann Miller), a smartly capable and confident biophysicist turned pharmaceutical pitch-woman, is giving a presentation about the latest drug her company is launching when she has an "episode." It's not until later in the 90-minute performance that we find out exactly what that episode entailed, but we begin early on to gather that it has something to do with her brain. She calls it brain cancer, but her oncologist husband, Ian (Mark Drumm), sends her to see a specialist who gives a different diagnosis.
As the doctor (Maureen O'Neill) interviews a prickly and resistant Juliana, we begin to unravel the mystery of the episode, learning more about Juliana's life, her marriage, her career and her only daughter, Laurel, whom she hasn't seen in a decade. The information unfolds in short episodic scenes -- flashbacks, perhaps, although we also learn not to trust what we see or hear as reality. Juliana seems to be a credible witness for her story -- but her husband appears credible, too, and his account of facts begins to poke large holes in Juliana's version of events.
The play sharply defines a blur, a nebulous "other place" where perception can't be trusted and the world recedes into anonymity, like a photograph gradually fading over time. If anyone you love has contended with dementia, you may be particularly moved by White's ability to capture the disorientation, frustration and anguish that go with it.
There are flaws -- a long scene in a former home with a totally extraneous character does little to advance our sympathy or understanding, and a sub-plot surrounding Laurel's disappearance raises questions as to the onset and cause of Juliana's decline -- but the script packs a powerful emotional wallop. As if to ease the pain of following Juliana's difficult path, White liberally sprinkles the play with wit and snappy dialogue.
The action sometimes feels rushed, failing to reveal fully the relationship between Juliana and her husband, or moving too quickly past her own dawning awareness. However, Miller is superb as Juliana, brilliantly portraying both her character's competence and disintegration. Her ability to make lightning-quick changes of expression is key to letting the audience in to Juliana's inner world. Drumm mostly keeps a cool reserve as the doctor husband, but has some good moments when his frustration and despair seep through.
O'Neill does well in three different roles, although as the doctor she's surprisingly thrown off by Juliana's orneriness. She seems too easily shocked for someone who has presumably dealt with many such patients before. Paul Stout is fine in two minuscule roles.
As the baby boomer generation ages, our society has even more opportunity to deal with one of the most pernicious illnesses of aging -- most of us will encounter it one way or another, if we haven't already. With unerring precision and depth of feeling, "The Other Place" paints a vivid portrait of a woman in crisis.
What: "The Other Place," by Sharr White
Where: Dragon Theatre, 2120 Broadway St., Redwood City
When: Through Dec. 14, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Info: Go to dragonproductions.net or call 650-493-2006, ext. 2