When we meet her, Juliana Smithton (Lynda Harvey) looks nothing like Don Quixote. About to address a doctor's conference at a swanky, sybaritic resort in the Virgin Islands, Juliana is a 52 year-old biophysicist turned Big Pharma pitch woman. She's confident bordering on arrogant, clearly in command of her facts, her presentation, and her audience. In fact, from her power suit down to her high heels she's the smartest guy in the room and she doesn't care who knows it.
Juliana's presentation (full of references to small interfering RNA and amyloid plaques) details a ground-breaking treatment for dementia she herself helped develop. And while she's been giving the same Powerpoint pitch for the last 10 years, this day's presentation is unlike the others. Because this is the day Juliana experienced her "episode." The day she began her quixotic, down-the-rabbit-hole quest to uncover just what's happened to her and why, despite her best efforts to bring order back to her life, she suddenly finds herself tilting at windmills.
A one act play, The Other Place runs at a breakneck pace for most of its uninterrupted 90 minutes, particularly so in the early scenes — this is when we gets our first doses of the stuttering, reckless-with-chronology narrative that takes us deeply into Juliana's head (a disorientating ride to say the least.)
Like Juliana herself, we have more questions than answers. She's convinced she has a brain tumor but her oncologist husband Ian (Jeff Jordan) isn't so sure. In razor-edged snippets, we see her confrontational appointment with a specialist (Haydn Harding) who manages to offer Juliana less diagnosis and reassurance than exasperation. The young doctor, increasingly alarmed by her patient's state of mind, asks Juliana if she's "flirting with suicidal thoughts." The acerbic reply: "Dating them, actually. But they won't put out."
The frustratingly elusive nature of whatever has turned her life upside down and haunting glimpses of past family tragedy contrive to pull us steadily into Juliana's autobiography. But Juliana might be the ultimate unreliable narrator. Is she a madwoman? She becomes increasingly vicious in her verbal attacks on her husband because she's convinced that he's cheating on her and intends to divorce her, neither of which may be true. Is she a murderer? Over a decade ago, Juliana and Ian's daughter ran away from home with one of Juliana's colleagues (Patrick Arnheim). The girl was never heard from again. But suddenly, and much to Ian's distress, Juliana insists she's getting phone calls from their lost daughter.
The collateral damage of Juliana's (biological or psychological) implosion falls hardest on Ian. Despite his wife's assessment that as a husband, he's a good oncologist, Jordan's Ian is most convincing as a deeply caring spouse rather than as an imposing medical authority. In scenes that flash back to the night of their daughter's disappearance, he is the picture of a man desperately trying to hold his family together.
Of the three roles Harding undertakes in this story — specialist doctor, daughter, and compassionate stranger — her turn as a career woman reluctantly drawn in to helping Juliana carries the most weight. It is a pivotal scene, one that requires complete support for Harvey's Juliana as that character goes to pieces and it is Harding's best, most vivid work here.
By design, the play rests on Juliana: forceful, often funny, fragile. Playwright Sharr White described the challenge this way: "It's a play about the smartest woman on Earth who discovers that actually nothing she knows is true." Harvey's Juliana, at the center of the maelstrom, is all flesh and blood and heart-wrenchingly compelling. Even when we suspect she may be a murderous psychopath, we can't help rooting for her, thanks to Harvey's commitment to give herself over to the frenzy.
From the get-go, The Other Place hits you like a triple shot espresso. But after the initial rush, it stays with you. You don't get much better theater than that.