Sometimes it’s the empty space that is most crowded, the silence that screams the loudest and the darkness that shines the brightest.
It is that kind of confusing contradiction that is on full and marvelous display as David Cecsarini directs a stellar cast – highlighted by his wife, Deborah Staples – in a searing production of Sharr White’s "The Other Place" at his Next Act Theatre. It is yet another in a string of absolutely marvelous productions that Next Act has been bringing to Milwaukee, and this one may be the best of them all.
It’s a story that is now you see it, now you don’t and I can see it, why can’t you and everybody sees it, but nobody does. It’s about a mind, and that of everyone in the audience, that goes astray so rapidly and profoundly that being dizzy may well be the most appropriate reaction.
The story is about Juliana Smithton (Staples) a scientist who has moved from her lab into the role of pitchman for a presumably miraculous drug she has patented and is expected to earn untold sums of money for the drug company and for her.
While pitching a convention of doctors at a posh resort in the Virgin Islands, she suffers what she calls "an episode" during which she becomes confused and must halt her speech. She comes away with the horrible conclusion that she is suffering from brain cancer, a disease she says has left a trail in her family. But it soon becomes clear that all is not as it seems, and we are soon introduced to the other people who simmer in her mind.
First of all, there is her husband, Ian, a prominent oncologist who Juliana says is divorcing yet still serves as the doctor to her cancer. And there is their daughter, Laurel, who ran away from home as a teenager, never to return. And there is Richard, the researcher who worked for Juliana and who lured Laurel, 15 years younger, to run away with him. They have had twins, and the rift between the young couple and her parents has remained a steadfast and an insoluble problem.
Just as we have become settled in, putting each of these characters into an appropriate slot in our theatrical visions, the scene shifts – again and again and again. What we believe to be the truth two minutes ago gives way to what we believe to be another truth, until another few minutes pass and we are confronted with still other sincerities.
This series of changes is, in large part, introduced and narrated by Staples, who is both precise and ambiguous in relating the passage of her character's life. She is mocking and brutal toward her husband. He accepts these accusations with a mildly good humored nonchalance, boiling over in frustration on occasion. She is full of longing for her daughter and is contemptuous of the doctor to whom she has gone for psychiatric treatment.
Staples is at the center of this world, and our view and understanding of her begins to shift, in small and imperceptible steps at first, and then with significant giant leaps. This, we learn, is a woman on a journey, although neither she nor we know what the destination is. The only certainty after a bit is that the journey is going to be complex and full of unexpected pains.
It's hard to find enough praise for Staples. I saw this play several years ago at Forward Theatre in Madison with Tracy Michelle Arnold in the role. It was a powerful performance and one that I remember clearly to this day, but Staples has added things to the role that I didn't see the first time around. Her descent into her own private hell is marked with good humor and great temper, dogged determination and shaky uncertainty. Every actor should see her in this role; it's a master class in how things should be on a stage.
Cecsarini has also assembled a positively powerful cast to surround Staples in this production.
Cristina Panfilio plays the daughter, the doctor who treats Juliana and, most tellingly and strikingly, a woman who lives in "the other place," the weekend home that gives the play its title. Panfilio is a versatile marvel, and her final scene bringing the heartbreak home, a scene between the two women, is as close to theatrical genius as it ever gets. She and Staples together bring a power and passion that is a rarity to see.
Todd Denning, one of my longtime favorites in Milwaukee, has found in Ian some depth that is hard to find. It’s easy to see Ian as a foil for all of his wife's machinations. But Denning creates a man of depth, full of sorrow and substance, wanting nothing more than to have his wife return to him and to herself.
Di’Monte Henning plays several roles, including Laurel's husband, the pariah who lured a 15-year-old girl out of her home and into a wifely and motherly marriage. Henning is rapidly developing into an actor with serious abilities to create multi-dimensional characters.
It’s difficult to imagine how fascinating this play is without seeing it. As it moves along, it becomes clear that there are truths to be told, but that it may be both inconvenient and surprising to confront them.
Thank good fortune that Cecsarini continues to stage productions at Next Act that challenge what we want to think that we know.
"The Other Place" continues through Feb. 26 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.
Production Credits: Director, David Cecsarini; Scenic Design, Ron Weirick; Lighting Design, Aaron Sherkow; Costume Design, Elsa Hiltner; Prop Design, Heidi Salter and Shannon Sloan-Spice; Video Design, William Cusick; Sound Design, David Cecsarini; Stage Manager, Veronica Zahn.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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