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article imageReview: Drama brings dementia to another place in new Toronto production Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Jan 25, 2015 in Entertainment
Toronto - “When I add up the balance sheet of my life,” says Juliana (Tamsin Kelsey), a seemingly confident neurologist, in “The Other Place”, “the numbers say I'm happy.” But things are never as they look in this fresh depiction of mental illness.
Sharr White's 2011 one-act play, which made its Canuck debut on Thursday night in a new Canadian Stage production in Toronto, takes an unusual approach to its subject. Juliana, a 52-year-old, well-dressed science professional who seems so together at the start, soon sees her entire life falling apart – but not in the way she thinks. The Other Place is structured not so much as a domestic Lifetime drama as it is a mystery, rife with red herrings. It's anchored by a strong, vulnerable performance by Kelsey, in a role that earned Laurie Metcalf a Tony nomination following the play's Broadway run in 2013.
We meet Juliana as she's delivering a speech during a convention of scientists, complete with descriptive asides to the audience, as computer graphics of molecules are projected on the set wall behind her. She sees (or thinks she sees) a young woman clad only in a yellow bikini among the attendees; the woman initially irritates Juliana, but soon begins to trouble her for unexplained reasons. The play intercuts between the convention and Juliana's Boston home – where she accuses her doctor husband Ian (Jim Mezon) of cheating on her and planning to leave her – as well as a medical office, where she gets testy with a different doctor (Haley McGee) over her diagnosis. Juliana also has a phone conversation with her estranged daughter, Laurel (McGee again), who, we are told, eloped with an older research assistant (Joe Cobden) about a decade earlier.
As the play flips between these settings, details begin to contradict each other and scenes make less sense, while Juliana's behaviour appears more erratic and antagonistic. When Laurel asks why she went to see the doctor, Juliana says, “I'm perfectly fine. I think it's brain cancer,” with seeming indifference. She dwells on Laurel's past disappearance and on her memories of “the other place” – the family's old cottage on Cape Cod. She compares Laurel's loss to the old Chinese torture of “death by a thousand cuts,” an extreme image that makes more sense later on. It's not long before we find out what's really going on: Juliana's suffering from early stages of dementia, and much of what we've been seeing has been twisted through her eyes.
White's script may sound dark and depressing from that summary, but it's not without humour. Far from it. Much of it comes from Juliana's biting wit, sometimes in cruel putdowns (when Ian reminds her that he's her husband, she snaps, “You're a better doctor”) and sometimes in self-deprecation (when asked if she's “flirting with suicidal thoughts,” Juliana quips, “I'm dating them, actually, but they won't put out.”) The play also turns a bit sentimental in its later scenes, but not necessarily to its detriment. Director Daniel Brooks, who's known mainly for his work with Daniel MacIvor, paces the drama carefully and keeps it from becoming either a soap opera or an outright comedy.
To some degree, The Other Place functions as an acting showcase for whoever is playing Juliana, and Kelsey does a fine job, covering a believable range from businesslike confidence and sharp wit to complete, uncontrolled meltdown. Unfortunately, Mezon isn't quite strong enough as Ian to balance Kelsey's burden; his line delivery often lacks variety and dynamics, and I didn't buy his emotional breakdowns as true.
White calls for a minimalist set, so Judith Bowden's fully furnished cottage room in the second half is a little puzzling, as is the use of Jamie Nesbitt's projected images. But these technical details don't detract from the play's effect; they merely add an extra visual component, which hooks the audience regardless of whether it's necessary. (The Sistine Chapel ceiling imagery projected on the walls before the play begins have no apparent relevance that I could see, unless I missed some underlying spiritual symbolism.)
If The Other Place isn't completely satisfying, perhaps that's only because its short length limits its scope. A longer, two-act version might have explored Juliana's history more deeply and developed Ian's and Laurel's characters more fully, while allowing more time for build-up to make the later revelations all the more shocking. Or maybe a longer script would have lacked the same tightness and pacing. As it is, it's still worth checking out as a subjective portrayal of dementia and its effects on others.
The Other Place runs at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts until February 8.
More about Theatre, canadian stage, Drama, sharr white, Toronto
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