For the most part, contemporary audiences have lost their appetite for tragedy as an art form, not to mention the en masse sharing and purging of grief that it allows. Back in the 4th century B.C.E., Aristotle famously described the audience experience of emotional cleansing during tragedies as “catharsis,” and it was one of the cultural side effects that he thought made theater indispensable to Greek society. Today’s ticketbuyers want escape, and if the drama gets a little too uncomfortably real, they demand at least a glimmer of hope for a happy ending before the final credits roll.
Playwright Sharr White offers such an optimistic shred in the final moments of his brutally effective drama, The Other Place, given an elegant and wisely restrained regional premiere by Circle Theatre. But the actors and the audience have just undergone an 80-minute emotional bruising, shrewdly paced by director Steven Pounders: The show’s protagonist, a neurological researcher named Julianna (Julienne Greer), has grappled with the terrifying disintegration of her memory and, ergo, her whole identity. White’s hint that a medical rescue could be just around the corner isn’t quite dishonest, but it does feel a little tepid and, frankly, tacked-on because the subject matter is so unrelentingly bleak. If all the playwright could offer his audiences was a despairing dead end, who wouldn’t want to flee mid-show and locate the nearest matinee of Legally Blonde: The Musical?
Many of the reviews for The Other Place have declined to name Julianna’s condition because it’s technically one of the production’s plot twists. But her symptoms point to a pretty obvious diagnosis from the play’s early moments, so here’s a spoiler alert: Stop reading now if you don’t want to know, but if you appreciate superbly acted drama delicately embroidered with midnight black edges from the aforementioned Greek tragedies, then by all means see the show.
Julianna wants to believe she has brain cancer, and that’s what she’s been telling everyone –– her oncologist husband Ian (Bill Jenkins), the intrepid young doctor (Meg Shideler) who’s trying to treat her, and her once-estranged grown daughter Laurel (Shideler again). But in fact Julianna has early-onset dementia, and all of its attendant frustrations and distortions are laid out with mercilessly accurate detail: the sudden personality changes, the violent lash-outs, the elaborate merging of distant memories with current fantasies, and — perhaps saddest of all — those moments of clarity when the patient can watch the gradual dissolution of her own personality like sugar disappearing into black coffee. In the case of Julianna, a hugely respected brain researcher who’s developed one of the first promising medications for dementia, she’s been given an especially lofty perch from which to watch her own rapid slide. The gods are cruel, indeed.
Circle Theatre’s discerning cast and director deserve big credit for not allowing The Other Place to wallow in cheap theatrical intensity. That direction would not only be easy to take but understandable: As someone who looks after a parent with early-onset dementia, I can verify that much of the caregiver’s job involves sharing and enduring the hapless patient’s melodramatic tantrums and paranoia, overwrought episodes that dementia manufactures like a gleefully unsubtle playwright. Luckily, in lead actor Greer, we have a performer of classical poise and reserve. While she doesn’t make dementia appear noble, she does seem wary of the self-indulgent pitfalls that a performer could stumble into while recreating the grimly absurd behaviors of gradual brain death. Instead, Greer steers us through the emotional rigors (with the expert assistance of a mostly reactive supporting cast) while maintaining that small fire of dignity that caregivers, family, and friends try so hard to preserve until the very last moment. Greer is graceful without being condescending to the character, allowing audiences just enough space to share the intensity of her downward trajectory.
And, yes, there was quiet weeping from some audience members at different moments throughout The Other Place. Circle’s tough-minded but empathetic production doesn’t traffic in easy “triumph of the human spirit” platitudes. It does, however, supply an excellent case for why life’s really sorrowful moments are worth capturing, exploring, and sharing, every bit as much as the joyful ones.
The Other Place
Thru May 24 at Circle Theatre, 230 W 4th St, FW. $15-35.