Next Act Explores Emotional Memory in The Other Place
Storytelling onstage has countless conventions. Audience and actors alike are engaging in a tremendous amount of work to allow a small group of people onstage to gain any kind of reality at all. In a very practical and earthbound fashion, playwright Sharr White’s The Other Place challenges some of the basic aspects of theatrical storytelling in ways that are radically compelling without ever reaching into surrealistic abstracts that can distance audiences from the emotional human impact of the story. This month Next Act Theatre presents a staging of White’s play that conjures a remarkably vivid realization of its potential.
As the play opens, Deborah Staples is seen playing Juliana--a woman delivering a presentation about a pharmaceutical to a roomful of medical professionals. She could be at the beginning or the end of a story which jumps and slides around in various directions in gentle response to unreliable memory stemming from something that might be brain cancer or a dementia resulting from some other kind of organic brain disorder.
Director David Cecsarini trusts Staples to deliver much of the reality of what’s going on in the story. There are a few bits of scenery, a few projections and a few other elements of production, but mostly we see the impact of Juliana’s mental state in Staples’ performance. Staples manages the tricky balance between being charming and abrasive as the character descends more and more into the uneasiness of a narrative that even Juliana can’t seem to keep together.
Todd Denning plays her husband. He plays warm confidence plagued by difficulties in dealing with the gradually crumbling psyche of the woman he loves. Denning has plays sharp resilience weighed by the mass of shadows haunting his wife’s memory which echo into the present. He’s a charismatic figure of frustration dealing with it all as best he can.
Also dealing with Juliana’s condition is her doctor, played by Cristina Panfilio. Juliana’s husband has warned her of the difficulties of dealing with her condition. Panfilio’s performance as the doctor (a colleague of Juliana’s husband) is very judicious as she navigates the complexities of a diagnostic interview. Her performance as a different character towards the end of the play is a lot more fascinating, though. Juliana is openly embracing a Panfiio character from within a home she still knows like he used to, but may not actually live there anymore. Panfilio conjures a ruggedly heroic compassion as someone reluctant to get involved with Juliana’s crisis. It’s rare that a supporting secondary role comes across with such inspiring sensitivity.
Di’Monte Henning rounds out the cast in a couple of different roles, one of which is one who has been unwittingly entangled in the fallout of Julianna’s disorder. Henning seems sharply aware of where his character needs to fit in the overall tapestry of the narrative and inhabits his corner of it quite well.
In presenting a story of fractured memory, Sharr White explores the nature of story and history in subtle complexity that Cecsarini and company bring to life with exquisite tenderness. There’s nothing superfluous in the production at all, which would be far to easy to delve into when dealing with a subject matter as complex as dementia. In its production of The Other Place, Next Act allows a delicate drama the gentle dignity of its proper intimacy.
Next Act Theatre’s production of The Other Place runs through Feb. 26 on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations, visit Next Act online or call 414-278-7780.