The show: "The Other Place" at Hartford's TheaterWorks
What makes it special?: Hartford production of recent Broadway play by Sharr White.
First impressions: How do you talk about "The Other Place" without giving the revelations away? It's a challenge not just for a critic but for audiences, too, who see this shattering production. The main character of Dr. Juliana Smithton, brilliantly played by Kate Levy, is an intense, hard-to-like and harder-to-take woman who is experiencing a mysterious illness of some kind at the same time her marriage appears to be in turmoil. But it's a long, hard journey to discovery for all in this tough and tender play that will have audiences enthralled.
But what's it about?: OK, here goes: The play begins with Smithton talking about the time she was giving a lecture in the Virgin Islands promoting a new pharmaceutical drug and she had a mysterious and unsettling "episode," the disorienting nature of which is unclear at first. This storytelling is intercut with scenes of her meeting with a new doctor about a medical issue and her difficult home-life with her husband Ian (R. Ward Duffy), who is an oncologist, and whom she says is having an affair. They are in the process of divorcing, she tells her young female doctor (Amelia McClain).
We trust Juliana because she is forceful, authoritative and accomplished, though we do not particularly like her. She is prickly, paranoid and displays a mean streak when she humiliates a young woman during her talk at the conference.
But Smithton, we find, is not the most reliable of narrators. As more information is learned we see other sides of this woman, her marriage and her family. The disappearance 10 years earlier of their 15-year-old daughter, who was having an affair with a research assistant of Juliana's, is a complicating element of the story.
As our perspectives change, so do our feelings towards all the characters in the play, which eventually leads to a larger journey of understanding and forgiveness.
Can you say anything else about the story?: The title ostensibly refers to a summer home on Cape Cod the family often escaped to, but it also refers to the neither-here-nor-there-world that several characters live in.
Sounds mighty dark: It is but there are many humorous touches in the sardonic and cutting humor and wry observations by Smithton, but yes, it's an emotional roller coaster at times.
It all builds to a shattering revelation, a heartbreaking scene of grace and humanity and a final episode of understanding and acceptance.
White's writing, however, is facile and schematic. The husband just happens to be an oncologist'; the protagonist just happens to be a medical specialist in the same field that her diagnosis appears to be heading; the crisis just happens during a talk about this new wonder drug. It's all a little too Lifetime-neat.
What is remarkable, however, is Levy's fearless performance under Rob Ruggiero's direction. The co-production with the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, which preceded the Hartford run, allows for a well-seasoned performance. It is a powerful, poignant and challenging turn that also makes demands on the audience as well.
Duffy is effective as her anguished husband and Clark Carmichael is fine in his brief scene as a figment from the past. Amelia McClain does very well in multiple roles, most movingly in the play's climax.
Who will like it?: Those who like a medical mystery, but with hyper-intensity.
Who won't?: Those who can't get past some writing faults.
For the kids?: Not really. Could be traumatizing.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less?: Fractured medical drama gets intensive care, performances.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: In the audience on the opening night was playwright Sharr White, which was a surprise to Ms. Levy — who was an emotional wreck at the curtain call. The same could be said for many who were in the audience.
The basics: The play continues through April 19 at 233 Pearl St., downtown Hartford. The running time is about 80 minutes, without an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and weekend matinees at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $65. Information is at 860-527-7838 and www.theaterworkshartford.org.