Medical mystery & misdirection

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday August 8, 2017
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The doctor has bad news for Juliana Smithson. She does not have a brain tumor. That was the diagnosis she was hoping for, for the alternative is inconceivable. Not that Juliana is oblivious to the alternative; her job is shilling for a new drug that has shown promise at slowing down the effects of a disease with a name that the characters can hardly bring themselves to speak.

Sharr White's "The Other Place," first seen in New York in 2011 and locally at the Magic Theatre the following year, is a play of intriguing misdirection served up by a narrator with shape-shifting reliability. The play is part puzzle and part mystery, as the audience is charged with sorting out competing realities, but most importantly it's a character study of an intelligent and confident woman who is spiraling out of control in ways that we can't fully know until the final moments.

Even then, we aren't sure if everything we've seen in the 90-minute intermissionless play really makes sense on any plane, but "The Other Place" does offer a potent showcase role in Juliana. On Broadway, Laurie Metcalf won hosannas for her portrayal of the unspiraling character, and without any inside knowledge, I suspect Symmetry Theatre chose the play largely because Stacy Ross was available to play the role for the small theater company headquartered at the Live Oak Theatre in Berkeley.

Ross' presence has always been an asset in the numerous productions she has appeared in on stages across the Bay Area, and "The Other Place" provides the opportunity to display numerous facets of her talents. Her performance grounds the production with a non-flashy flashy performance, which may sound like an oxymoron, but really is key to most truly sublime performances.

We first meet Juliana as she is onstage pitching her dementia-slowing drug at a medical conference in the Virgin Islands, and as slide projections of the inner workings of the brain appear behind her, she exudes confidence and intelligence. In an aside to the theater audience, she confides she's wearying of her dog-and-pony show on the conference circuit. But there is something slightly off about this particular appearance, she tells us in one of the asides: the presence of a young woman in a yellow bikini among the sea of male doctors. Probably a prostitute who wandered in, she surmises, but she disturbs herself with the increasingly pointed barbs she aims at this woman until, in a blink, the woman in yellow isn't there.

Juliana dismisses it as an "episode," but there are more episodes, and brain tumor becomes her preferred diagnosis. A bit conveniently in plot terms, Juliana's husband (stoically played by Robert Parsons) is an oncologist who suspects a different diagnosis and sends her into a belligerent session with a specialist in areas of memory loss and dementia.

Scenes don't follow a normal chronological flow, keeping us intriguingly off-balance in director Taylor Korobow's solid production, and the reality of any moment can never be trusted. But it gives us the chance to see Ross in many moods and situations, played with a fierce commitment to a character who can be alternately infuriating and heartbreaking. The cast also includes Michael Barrett Austin in two small roles and Lisa Moore in three more significant roles �" including effective turns as Juliana's estranged daughter and as the current occupant of the Smithsons' old vacation home �" the other place �" whose suspicious mystification turns to solace when she finds Juliana sitting in her living room.

The condition that the characters dare not speak its name is, obviously, Alzheimer's, and "The Other Place" illustrates one journey toward the inevitable. But its shifting points of view keep us off-balance in stimulating ways, and the playwright has created a role that can keep "The Other Place" out of a movie-of-the-week abyss. But that's only true with a performer who can pull the play up, an assignment that Stacy Ross handles with a combination of emotional honesty and theatrical expertise.


"The Other Place" will run through Aug. 13 at the Live Oak Theatre. Tickets are $25-$30, available at