Monday, October 15, 2012

Theatre review: "The Other Place" at Off The Wall Productions-Sunday, 14th October 2012

Off The Wall Productions has new walls less far off from Pittsburgh than Washington, PA, now framing a congenial playing space on lively Main street in Carnegie. Appropriately, the first production there is called The Other Place. It’s by Sharr White and stars artistic director Virginia Wall Gruenert in an impressive, compelling, ultimately beautiful performance.

I say “ultimately” because the play starts out going in many directions without any obvious focus. Disjointed, bewildering fragments. Criss-crossing. Juliana Smithton paces the space. Talking to herself? Talking to you facing her. Talking to doctors. Are you there to analyze her?

As is turns out, White deliberately holds up a mirror to the increasingly fractured life of a biophysicist who has become a pharmaceutical pitchwoman. It takes time for you to realize where the story is going, even as it takes time for Juliana to realize in what direction she is heading and why. An exploration of the often-used what-is real- what-is-fantasy device.

As you come away later into the bright lights of the street, your mind can reassemble what you’ve seen and intellectually admire what you’ve witnessed on the sometimes shadowy stage. But, when it starts, you may feel  disoriented and not engaged, wondering what this is really about, until realizing it’s fundamentally about Juliana with six other characters encompassing her story.

Here are a few emerging facts: Juliana has given a talk about research into dementia, often distracted by a girl in a yellow bikini. Juliana is married to oncologist Ian. They had a daughter named Laurel who disappeared as a teenager from their Cape Cod summer home (the other place) perhaps with Richard, Juliana’s adult research assistant. Two scenes are flashbacks. One of them is the first scene. The rest is up from grabs.

Virginia Wall Gruenert's Juliana flows through it with every emotional dimension clearly, tellingly defined. Salty. Intelligent. Provocative. Infuriating. Vulnerable. Sad. Sympathetic. Hopeful. She has it all. She does it all. But never pushing. Never overboard, even though Juliana tilts and sways toward sinking.

Mark Conway Thompson portrays patient, loving husband Ian. He comes across with warm intelligence, albeit strong enough to withstand her excesses. Erika Cuenca plays three women, getting the sweet best out of a stranger who tries to comfort and reassure Juliana when mind and body are in another place.

Melissa Hill Grande directed this perceptively, getting well-tuned performances from everyone while making effective use of the large stage and an ingenious set by PICT resident scenic designer Gianni Downs.

Alas, Off The Wall does not give the audience information about the playwright in the program book as it used to do back in Washington, PA. However, the company website covers that well: White has impressive, lengthy credits.

You might want to know that this play premiered off-Broadway in March last year directed by Joe Mantello with Laurie Metcalf getting an Obie award for her interpretation of Juliana. A Broadway version opens in December. Certainly seeing and pondering this production you can realize why New York audiences and critics have been impressed. And Virginia Wall Gruenert shows how much can be done superbly with this material 370 miles west of New York on a friendly small town street.

The Other Place continues through October 27th at Off the Wall Productions,  25 West Main Street  Carnegie, PA.  724/ 873-3576 or or 412/394-3353 

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