The High Drama of Pain and Loss
Deborah Staples and David Cecsarini on Next Act’s ‘The Other Place’
“I love it when stories are told in unusual ways” David Cecsarini said when I asked how he chooses his Next Act Theatre seasons. “Plays that step outside a little bit. Because that’s when you get to talk about things.” Next Act’s upcoming production of Sharr White’s The Other Place is a perfect example. It’s a play you’ll want to talk about after you’ve seen it—it traffics in immensely emotional matters—but it’s very hard to talk about in advance without spoiling its surprises.
Let me quote actress Deborah Staples who plays the lead role of Juliana, a 52-year-old scientist at a pharmaceutical company described by the playwright as sharply charismatic, a woman of fierce intelligence. “She’s essentially faced with brain cancer,” Staples said. “She’s convinced that she has very little time to live. She can feel really great about a lot of what she’s done with her life. She’s developed a drug that’s very successful and now she’s about to reconcile with her missing daughter. What a gift to have when you’re facing the end! I would imagine that if your child was missing for 10 years and you had the chance to work toward reconciliation—I’d trade 35 years of life for that for sure.” Of course, there are problems: an unfaithful husband, a divorce process and a sullen girl in a yellow string bikini who gets under Juliana’s skin at a neurological convention.
Staples is, of course, a leading Milwaukee actress, an associate artist at Milwaukee Repertory Theater and, before that, a member of its longstanding resident company. She and Cecsarini have been married for nearly two decades and are parents to a teenager and a younger child. Cecsarini is, of course, the co-founder and artistic director of Next Act Theatre. As director of The Other Place, he’s also directing his wife for the first time.
The script’s unusual structure and high drama inspired him to ask her to consider playing Juliana. At first she wasn’t sure. “Sometimes I have trouble taking on things that are too painful,” she explained. “Having a teenaged daughter, I became so invested in the play while reading it. The writing is so good and so true and so easy for me to imagine. Then it was like the playwright pushed me off a cliff. But after cooling off and reading it again, I felt confident that I could fulfill the requirements without going over the edge. You can liken it to The Diary of Anne Frank, absolutely devastating in the end but for most of the play it’s manageable.”
She continued, “One way of thinking about the play for me is, we all experience the loss of something that was meaningful to us in our life. And that can be difficult to recover from. If something that’s been so much a part of my life is gone, then who am I? What’s left? And in the play, what’s left is an incredibly beautiful, loving relationship between a husband and wife. It’s why we have partners, I think. We can’t do this alone.”
Staples grew up in the Los Angeles area and attended the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, Calif. Rep actors Ken Albers and Jim and Rose Pickering spent their summers acting with the conservatory’s professional summer theater. After Albers performed a Shylock monologue and, together with the Pickerings, described a life in art in Milwaukee to her class, Staples applied for an internship and was accepted. In that internship year, she understudied a role in a show directed by Joe Hanreddy. Five years later, as the Rep’s artistic director, Hanreddy cast her in a Rep production. It was 1996 and she’d just played Lady Macbeth to her future husband’s Macbeth in the summer Platteville Shakespeare Festival. “So it was like I met David and then moved to his city,” she said, “and never left.”
I wondered how their actor-director partnership was going. “I always want to tell the cast, he likes us more than he’s letting on,” Staples joked; then seriously, “It’s not a mutual admiration society although I know that he believes in me and loves my work. He also believes in me and loves my work enough to not react blindly. David has an extraordinary ability to look at a script and see its best potential.”
The Other Place premiered in New York in 2011. Actress Laurie Metcalf won an OBIE in the role of Juliana and was nominated for a Tony for her performance the play’s 2013 Broadway run. “At the moment, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Staples said, mid-rehearsal process. “It’s more challenging than I thought it was going to be and for very different reasons.”
Feb. 2-26 at Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St. For tickets call 414-278-0765 or visit nextact.org.