Lynn Meyers, producing artistic director at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, has a knack for finding thoughtful, engaging new plays that haven’t been seen on any local stage and giving them memorable productions. They’re frequently shows that recently debuted in New York City as important Broadway productions or off-Broadway hits. Meyers typically stages them herself with breathtakingly original scenic designs by Brian c. Mehring, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that these productions, employing mostly local professional actors, are every bit as powerful as the originals. They are, in fact, often the first regional productions of important new plays, and many times they represent an important second staging that playwrights yearn for to keep their works going after a showy debut.
Such is the case with Sharr White’s The Other Place, ETC’s current production. It was his Broadway debut at the end of 2012, following a warmly received off-Broadway staging in 2011 (it was nominated for one of the season’s outstanding plays). It’s an unsettling work that keeps audiences on edge and uncertain of what’s going on as the layers of Juliana Smithton’s self-told story are gradually and then searingly peeled away.
Juliana (Regina Pugh) is delivered to the audience, front and center, from the get-go. She is a brilliant biophysicist with a low tolerance for slow thinkers; she’s now working for a pharmaceutical company that’s marketing a drug based on her research about brain chemistry. We see her dead center in a starkly tiled white hexagon backed by Mehring’s angular wall of horizontal slats and vertical white lights; it features three portals in which the show’s three other actors are seated. As Smithson delivers a lecture at a professional conference at resort in the Virgin Islands, we slip in and out of spiky scenes with her frustrated husband Ian (Michael G. Bath), a medical professional who seems to be evaluating Smithson (Kelly Mengelkoch) and her daughter’s husband (Billy Chace) on the phone because her daughter refuses to have a conversation.
It’s clear that Juliana is intelligent, as well as arrogant and abrasive. But we gradually see that she is losing control: She and Ian appear to be on the brink of divorce, she has trouble conjuring up words, she is distracted by a woman in a yellow bikini sitting amidst the physicians to whom she is lecturing. We are provided with a lot of information and background, but its veracity and her credibility feel increasingly unreliable.
Juliana’s story unfolds in troubling ways, not to be documented here because the play’s enigmas are part of its drama. But it’s fair to say that your perceptions from the play’s first moments are not safe ground to ascertain where The Other Place will take you. (The play’s title references a Cape Cod beach home where Juliana and Ian spent past summers with their daughter, but it’s also a hint that there’s more than one story behind the action in White’s play. We can’t depend on Juliana’s retelling.)
Audiences will surely mark this performance by Pugh, a veteran local actor and director, as one of her most demanding and memorable. The arc of her portrait of Juliana’s disintegration is both disturbing and moving, at times maddening and touching as we see her confident demeanor unravel and shatter. I suspect that many watching this show will feel deeply the difficult journey she takes.
Pugh has performed onstage several times with Bath, but the choreography of their marriage in The Other Place is especially fascinating because we are never quite certain of their motives or the truth behind their interactions. Bath’s exasperated but sympathetic performance as Ian as he negotiates the wayward, daunting path of their relationship sustains the play’s gradual revelations of reality.
Mengelkoch and Chace, both longtime members of Cincinnati Shakespeare’s resident ensemble of actors, turn in versatile performances as multiple characters. These roles are somewhat underwritten, especially Chace’s, but Mengelkoch’s scene toward the end of the 90-minute production as a harried homeowner with her own set of frustrations is extremely moving.
Meyers’ direction of this show is patient and deliberate. We aren’t given too much too soon, but on retrospect audience members will see that facts have been laid out, as well as red herrings that make you think you know where The Other Place is headed. I won’t reveal that destination, but don’t trust everything you hear, because you’re going to end up somewhere else. And glad for the disorienting journey, if a little shaken.
THE OTHER PLACE, presented by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, continues through Feb. 15.