Wearing a trim, businesslike suit and allowing a trim, businesslike trace of a smile to cross her face, Juliana Smithton launches into a sales pitch for a new drug at a convention of neurologists in the Virgin Islands. A few weak jokes, some slick visual illustrations — all is going routinely for this ever-confident, 52-year-old woman.
But Juliana keeps getting distracted by someone in the room wearing a yellow bikini, and the ground starts to shift under her. It shifts under us, too, out in the audience, as Sharr White's compact and sensitive play "The Other Room" unfolds.
This 2011 work, receiving a first-rate regional premiere from Rep Stage, reveals its secrets bit by bit over the course of about 80 minutes. Even if you figure out early on where the play is headed, and even if you're not totally convinced by how it gets there, you'll likely find the journey absorbing.
Juliana, trained as a scientist, knows that what she calls the "episode" at the convention is serious. But she's a proud soul, not afraid to make piercing use of vulgarity when feeling threatened or demeaned.
She bristles at each step in the process of consulting a doctor or discussing the possibility of brain cancer, even with her husband, who happens to be an oncologist — and who just might be planning a divorce.
Various issues from Juliana's past, especially concerning a daughter who apparently ran off with a much older man and started a family, cloud her mind, competing with the threats of the present that keep rising up to unnerve her.
"The Other Place" — the title has literal and figurative significance in the piece — examines the scary prospect of discovering that some things in life no longer click the way they used to, and what that uncertainty can do to us and those who care about us.
Rep Stage makes the most of the material in a beautifully realized production, directed by Joseph W. Ritsch with ample nuance and a fine sense of pacing.
The action, peppered with flashbacks, plays out seamlessly on a set (by Nate Sinnott) evoking the Cape Cod summer home that means so much to Juliana; the gaps around the edges of the wooden floor seem to mirror the missing strands of her memory.
Julie-Ann Elliott offers an incisive portrayal of Juliana, filled with telling little details. She brings out the woman's intellect and smugness as effectively as her bruised pride and frayed emotions.
Explosive moments are handled with remarkable naturalness. And near the end of the play, when Juliana seems so sure of having finally found answers, Elliott proves especially impressive, achieving remarkable poignancy.
The actress is finely matched by Nigel Reed as Juliana's husband, who cannot always disguise the impatience, sometimes downright annoyance, that comes with trying to keep her on an even keel.
Maggie Robertson does assured, subtle work in multiple assignments, striking resonant chords with each. Scott Ward Abernethy makes a vibrant contribution in the thinly written role of the man involved with Juliana's daughter.
With such a well-knit cast and strong production values across the board, Rep Stage succeeds in making "The Other Place" a memorable, affecting destination.
"The Other Place" runs through Sept. 25 at Studio Theatre, Horowitz Center, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Tickets are $15 to $40. Call 443-518-1500, or go to repstage.org.