Barrington Stage Opener Takes Audiences To ‘The Other Place’
By Jeremy D. Goodwin
In Hamlet, when the Danish prince is on full tilt, having just stashed the body of the freshly murdered Polonius behind some stairs, the king furiously demands to know where his (late) advisor is.
“In heaven. Send hither to see. If your messenger find him not there,” Hamlet responds with a dash of cruel wit, “seek him i’ th’ other place yourself.”
Sure, it’s an artful way of telling someone to quite literally go to hell. But an existence in which one’s understanding of possibly the key episode in her adult life is questioned, leading to potentially irresolvable quandaries about her broader view of the world — isn’t that a form of hell as well?
In Sharr White’s play The Other Place, the title phrase is a metaphor into which more and more meaning is progressively sunk, expanding finally to suggest a location in the mind where the bitter pain of a life can be eased away, where by sheer force of will one can insist that everything is alright — because, to even go on, it just has to be.
Barrington Stage Company has opened its 20th season with a tightly knit, expertly paced production whose emotional stakes expand progressively by inches, feet and then yards. It’s anything but stereotypically light summer-theater fare. The potent production at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, directed by Christopher Innvar (who now heads to New York, where he’s acting in King Lear at the Delacorte Theatre this summer), speaks well of artistic director Julianne Boyd’s dogged insistence that the Berkshires — and specifically, downtown Pittsfield — is fertile ground to stage challenging, unapologetically relevant theater. Keep the straw hats in storage.
The uniformly excellent cast of four is led by Emmy winner Marg Helgenberger (TV’s China Beach and C.S.I), making a late-career foray onto the stage with the confidence and presence of a theater veteran. Her convincing portrayal of a confident, aggressive, somewhat solipsistic medical researcher is the thread that pulls the audience through a carefully constructed script that frequently cuts between scenes and back-and-forth through time. (Scott Pinkney’s lighting does much to establish place, as do occasional projections on the rear panel of a spare set designed by Brian Prather.)
Her Julianna is a straight-laced, 52-year-old neurologist dressed in smart business attire. The spine of the story is her direct-address to the audience, recalling her presentation at a professional conference of a new drug that promises to treat brain disorders. On the trip, she explains, she had “an episode.” The full explanation of what this means takes most of the play’s 80-minute run time. It does take Helgenberger a while to layer some empathetic notes into her china-shop-charging bull of a character, but this creates tension with the apparently well-intentioned people that surround her, revealing their true motivations by degrees.
Photos: Kevin Sprague/Barrington Stage Company.
We learn that Julianna and her soon-to-be ex-husband Ian (Brent Langdon, who tailors his pained exasperation with a bracing dose of residual love) haven’t seen their daughter, her husband and their two little girls in quite some time. As things unfold, we realize there are progressively darker layers to the backstory that go beyond your typical depiction of family estrangement.
Though there indeed are twists that would be considered spoilers if revealed, it’s to Sherr’s credit that the secrets in these characters’ pasts are not merely unveiled near the end in emotionally wrenching “ta da!” moments, as in less artful family dramas. No, they drive the story forward, giving us more insight into these people and keeping things grounded in a story that refuses to depend on tearful admissions to resolve suspense.
Katya Campbell is terrific in three roles, each providing a foil that opens up Julianna’s story a little bit more. She creates shades of nuance in characters who could otherwise receive stock depictions as written, climaxing ultimately in a character who senses exactly what the troubled protagonist needs to hear.
There’s little option for happy endings here, but the audience takes heart in the tiny degrees of success that those in dire straits, with altered expectations, must celebrate when they find them. This is a story about choosing to embrace one tragedy because its potential alternative seems to be too much to bear. Yes, it’s a bit of a tearjerker — too explicitly so in its final moments — but it’s ultimately a story about survival. And the places people go in their quest to achieve it.
The Other Place, May 21-June 14
Barrington Stage Company
Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center
36 Linden Street, Pittsfield