What makes Sharr White's new play, The Other Place, so mysterious is its relentless disorientation, beginning from the first action at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre's arena stage. Ostensibly, we've arrived in St. Thomas — for CAST's boarding-pass style of tickets have specified this island as our destination — where Juliana Smithton is lecturing a roomful of fellow professionals on the development and efficacy of a new, highly marketable drug that she has perfected.
As the lecture proceeds, we are whisked away from the Virgin Islands by a dizzying series of flashbacks and flash-forwards that offer hints of past family traumas, current marital discord and the specter of life-threatening illness. All of this eats away at our presumptions that Juliana's account of her lecture is true or even real. Is she addressing us as professionals, as a theater audience, or are we simply eavesdropping on what she tells neurobiologist Dr. Cindy Teller?
Everyone is likely to experience the unraveling of this mystery differently, since it depends largely on how much credence we're prepared to give the other people onstage, including Juliana's husband Ian, her long-lost daughter Laurel, and her doctor, who may or may not be having an affair with her husband. Whenever we sort out the mystery, we must conclude that, for much of the time, we've been inside Juliana's mind — not exactly the most stable of places. Even after we understand Juliana and her family history, we must remain puzzled about the one disturbing woman attending her lecture, clad in a yellow string bikini.
Once you take your seat, holding on to your distinctive ticket stub, you can fortify your disorientation by opening your playbill and looking at White's setting. "Boston, the Present. Cape Cod, Ten Years Ago and the Present." Conspicuously missing is St. Thomas.
Former Charlotte Rep managing director Matt Olin played a pivotal role in bringing this fascinating story to Broadway, and he resettled in Charlotte shortly after it closed last March. So it's not altogether outlandish that CAST artistic director Michael Simmons was able to stage the regional premiere here so soon, though it's still highly commendable. Simmons hasn't merely transplanted what I saw on Broadway last winter, he has transformed it with his arena concept.
On two of the four walls flanking the stage, vivid projections appear as Juliana proceeds with her sales pitch, changing each time she clicks her handheld device. The effect during the lecture heightens the realism of the St. Thomas scenes, but I found it far more startling when we returned from one of those flashbacks or flash-forwards. "Next!" was all Juliana had to say, and we jump-cut from Teller's office to the lecture hall. Moments that were purely theatrical at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in New York are very cinematic at 2424 N. Davidson St.
Unfortunately, Simmons allows an unwanted element of mystery to creep into this CAST effort, namely what are these women saying? There are times when Marla Brown is simply inaudible as Juliana — like when she first begins her narration. I'll pass along my wife Sue's suggestion that we would have heard better if we had been seated under one of the screens, but I doubt that would have dispelled all the sonic dropouts. Brown's apparent unease in her stylish high heels further erodes the arrogant self-confidence Juliana should be radiating to a mostly male gathering of her peers.
Frances Bendert should hardly be expected to drown out Brown in her three supporting roles, which include Laurel, Dr. Cindy and a frazzled divorcée. But I wish I could accuse Bendert of prodding Brown to speak more loudly by example. Instead, her volume level invariably decreases the closer Simmons has Brown moving toward her. When the two of them were close together at the opposite end of the arena from where I sat, my only consolation was that I'd seen this all 11 months ago.
What comes through — stroboscopically, I'm afraid — are two nicely sculpted performances, for Brown gradually unravels in tandem with the unraveling of the mystery of what's troubling her, and Bendert differentiates between her three roles without yielding to the temptation of exaggerating any of their peculiarities. Together, Bendert and Brown cap the denouement to touching effect at the Cape Cod cottage that gives the drama its title. But this is theater, not cinema, and their voices should be heard in the front row of a 99-seat house all evening long as easily as I heard the Broadway leads from the 10th row of the 650-seat Friedman.
Jeff Johnston, as Ian, routinely sets off sparks from Juliana in his scenes, which thankfully are the most helpful in making sense of White's murky hopscotching between times, places and realities. Johnston balances Ian's love and exasperation very naturally, a couple of his zingers cutting right to the bone, and Brown is so compellingly tormented when she turns up the volume. In a couple ways, then, Ian satisfies us when he comes to a boil: He breaks through all of Juliana's pesky and hostile interruptions, and he gives us our first glimmers of clarity.
Rounding out the cast is Jeffrey Woodard in multiple minor roles, chiefly Richard, Juliana's former assistant who, she is convinced, eloped with Laurel 10 years ago and hasn't been seen since. I wished we could see more of Richard, for Juliana has expended so much vicious hatred upon him, and his brief appearance here gives us a telling insight into what has become of this wounded mother in the intervening decade.
Your playbill will say that the show lasts "approximately 84 minutes" without intermission, but I clocked it at a shade over 77. Maybe if they slow it down as the run continues, they'll also be able to turn up the decibels. With all that Juliana has lost on the way to her epiphany, we shouldn't also be losing such gems as her "tennis bracelet" line.