At the beginning of The Other Place, Sharr White's absorbing study of a mind unraveling, a woman is standing at a podium giving a lecture on a new drug intended as a cure for dementia. She is poised, intelligent, witty, self-aware. This is Juliana, a neuroscientist originally involved in developing the drug and now at a doctors' conference in the Virgin Islands shilling for a pharmaceutical company. The action alternates between the lecture and a series of asides in which Juliana tells her story to the audience. The scenes she describes are acted out as they arise in her mind.
As she lectures, Juliana spots a young woman in a yellow bikini in the audience and begins speculating as to who she is. She comes up with a few jibes — some cleverly pointed, others downright coarse — but she's also periodically guilt-ridden at her own harsh words. Maybe the girl isn't a prostitute. Maybe she's a doctor. Or perhaps someone she's close to is afflicted with dementia and she's hungry for information.
Scene by scene in this swift, 85-minute puzzler of a play, the narrative unfolds and refolds, until it's as sticky as the clumps of misfolded protein at the heart of dementia. Juliana's husband is divorcing her; she sees a therapist who may be a psychologist or a medical doctor. She talks on the phone to her son-in-law, while the daughter from whom she's estranged bathes her grandchildren off stage, calling out periodically that she doesn't want to talk to her mother. She tells her husband, Ian — who doesn't seem aware that they're divorcing — that she thinks she has brain cancer; brain cancer runs in her family. But Ian, an oncologist, disagrees with her self-diagnosis.
In fact, Juliana is suffering from the same illness she has dedicated her life to curing, and everything she tells us is suspect and distorted. But she's also sharply defended, and determined to hide her own uncertainties from everyone around her. Her weapons are humor, indirection, attack and, of course, that devastating intellect. Juliana suffered a terrible loss earlier in her life, a loss she apparently caused and from which she has never recovered. For her, there's something almost merciful about a dementia that allows her to rewrite the story. In interviews, playwright White has talked about the delusion of many brilliant people that their powers of analysis can protect them from life's uncertainties. But it takes something beyond brilliance to help Juliana climb out of the pit of despair, something ineffable.
The Boulder Theatre Ensemble's production is The Other Place's regional premiere. I can think of several other plays that center on a woman fighting for her memories and her identity and examine the push-pull between intellect and emotion. In Margaret Edson's Wit, Dr. Vivian Bearing, an English professor, finds her smug theoretical certainties fragmenting as ovarian cancer ravages her body. Unlike Juliana, Bearing is alone in the world; like Juliana, she discovers a kind of salvation in human kindness. In his one-act A Kind of Alaska, Harold Pinter attempts to penetrate the consciousness of a woman who suffers from encephalitis lethargica, the condition described by Oliver Sacks in Awakenings, in which patients fall into a coma that can last for years. (The role was beautifully played last year by Elgin Kelley at Germinal Stage.) Arthur Kopit's Wings, written in the 1970s, is also intended to communicate the inner reality of a woman who has lost language and is unable to organize her thoughts, a one-time aviator who suffered a stroke.
I'm not suggesting The Other Place is in any way derivative: the topic of consciousness is vast and profound, Juliana is a completely original character, and White handles her situation deftly and with moments of real brilliance. But I do sometimes wonder why it's always a woman at the center of these stories. I don't think it's sexism. Perhaps is has to do with the oceanic fluidity associated in myth and archetype with the female psyche.
Benaiah Anderson and Erica Young each play several roles with grace — though if Young slowed down her final scene, her change of heart would be more convincing. Josh Hartwell is perfect as Ian, a man as brilliant as his wife but confused and made helpless by her disability. Almost everything rests on the shoulders of Rachel Fowler, however, and her Juliana — smart, tough as nails, naked in her grief and loss — is riveting throughout.