The Canadian premiere of The Other Place by Sharr White at PAL Theatre takes place in front of a shattered-glass backdrop; a blurb in the program from the playwright mentions mental illness and affliction.
Don’t go judging yet. The script is not so heavy-handed as to render the set design awkwardly obvious.
Rather, as Juliana, an unreliable narrator, begins to tell her fragmented story, it soon becomes clear the broken panes are more like windows of clarity within her mind, which rarely cohere to form a lucid moment. It’s not just a pseduo-metaphorical association by hacks trying to be artistic (main-character-suffers-mental-illness-therefore-shattered-glass), it’s actually the most effective way to transport the audience inside Juliana’s mind, which has become a surreal trap for her.
Juliana descends deeper into darkness as it becomes clearer to the audience what exactly is wrong with her. White’s non-linear script shows glimpses of Juliana as a scientist, working on a cure for an unnamed neurodegenerative disease and giving high-heeled, pencil-skirted presentations to congregations of the world’s best doctors, one of whom is her soon-to-be-ex husband. She visits another doctor to discuss a frightening “episode.” She fights with her husband. She is remembering things that may not have happened, or forgets things that just happened.
Mercifully, by the time and big reveals happen about the things Juliana thinks she knows, we’re saved from any M. Night Shyamalan-style twists by the fact we have already concluded what’s wrong with Juliana and are now watching her unravel, a spectacle that her actor, Chilton Crane, portrays effectively. Ironically, Crane seems a little more lost with high-powered, grumpy Juliana than with the task of playing confusion. It probably does not help that she seems to want to take in the whole room at all times; the stage is a sort of curved thrust, forcing director Christy Webb to attempt to point the action at the side margins whenever possible, and this appears to have Crane whipping her focus left and right, which makes for dropped energy between Crane and her co-stars. However, the three other actors do not seem to do this.
Speaking of whom: Daryl Shuttleworth is exceptional as helpless husband Ian, flipping between frustration, fear, anger and tenderness on a dime, with complete authenticity, as various tactics to get his wild wife under control. Ian likely knows what’s wrong with Juliana, but that doesn’t make him any better equipped emotionally to deal with it as husband and father.
Also noteworthy is Avery Crane, who plays all the other women; Juliana’s doctor, her unseen and insolent 15-year-old daughter, and a young woman who has the misfortune of moving into Juliana and Ian’s former family home. Every line out of Avery Crane is real. She’s not so much “acting” as existing within the given circumstances of her characters, and I intend this as the highest compliment.
The Other Place is the right way to do a play about mental illness. It’s not trying to be more clever than it is, not trying to force any surprise twists that the unreliable narrator genre can often scrape for, and that makes it seem like a worthy study of the affliction in question, with a bit of medical thriller mixed in for flavour. White adds it’s also about how an affliction can sometimes be a window to something else you’ve yearned for; in this case, love.
The Other Place runs June 26 – July 5 at PAL theatre. Tickets here.