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‘The Other Place’: Coming Unmoored in a Storm-Tossed Life

Sharr White’s play The Other Place , which runs at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield through April 13, is an ingeniously framed mystery, but not in a whodunit, dead-body-in-a-locked-room way. The mystery lies in that most elusive of entities, the human mind. How do we remember, and how do we trust our memories, given that memory is both unreliable and subjective?

The play, which clocks in at a taut 75 minutes, begins with Juliana Smithton, a neurologist for a pharmaceutical company addressing a conference of doctors in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. She’s assured, witty and tough, dressed in a power suit, and has given this pitch for a new drug so many times she knows where to insert the sure-fire jokes and go for the close-the-deal Eureka moments.

But midway through her slide presentation her mind goes blank, the words evaporate, and she’s left standing there, disoriented and afraid.

Put it down to stress. Smithton’s husband Ian, an oncologist, has announced he’s leaving her. Smithton’s research associate Richard ran off with her young daughter Laurel, a shock that Juliana and Ian still regard as a profound betrayal. Laurel hasn’t forgiven her parents for their refusal to acknowledge that Richard has become her husband, and won’t let them see her twin children. Little wonder that Smithton seems to be coming unmoored, assuming an increasingly belligerent, sardonic mien even as she is struggling to find a firm foothold.

As the play progresses, the mysteries deepen. White has almost constructed two plays in one, with the result that each character has more than one persona. The ground shifts underneath the audience’s feet. What’s real, what’s not? And who’s to say that acts of the imagination are less authentic or meaningful than what purports to be reality? Is it self-delusion to make a willful effort not to remember, or is it self-preservation?

White makes the point that time is no more fixed or linear than memory. It’s malleable, with some moments lasting an eternity, and others flying by at alarming speed. With six plays to his credit, White isn’t a neophyte. But The Other Place , which had productions both Off-Broadway and on, is the play that moved him up into the next rank of American playwrights.

It’s not hard to see why: the tight, intricate design of the play — one thinks of a first-rate carpenter building a chair or table, joining the parts together so that they fit snugly — is ideally suited to its subject. And the way White plays with language shows us that for all its power, the moments when it deserts us completely are often the ones that strike us to the core.

The play also offers plum parts for its four actors, but the meatiest of them is Juliana Smithton . In her first role at Shaker Bridge, Susan Haefner gives a virtuoso performance as Juliana. She’s intimidating and relentless one minute, f rightened and vulnerable in the next. The harder she tries to exert control the more things fall apart. Haefner is a compelling knot of contradictions all the way through until she dissolves into a pool of pure emotion that is very affecting.

She’s well matched by David Bonanno, who was last seen at Shaker Bridge in December in the comedy Miracle on Division Street. Bonanno plays Ian, the husband at the end of his rope. He wants desperately to help his wife but it comes at a heavy cost for him. Bonanno is immensely sympathetic as a husband driven nearly to despair by his wife’s erratic behavior.

Caitlin Glasgo plays three roles: Laurel, a doctor and a woman with whom Juliana finds unlikely refuge. She’s particularly persuasive as the woman who lives in The Other Place, a house where Juliana, Ian and Laurel used to live on Cape Cod; she brings humor and compassion to the part. As Richard, Dan Weintraub has a smaller role than the other three actors but he adds his own crucial piece to the puzzle, trying to navigate between two hostile parties, Laurel and her parents.

Such plays as The Other Place and Good People at Northern Stage are a heartening reminder that while the majority of contemporary American films are notable for their dearth of complex roles for women, the same can’t be said of the theater. Here women aren’t one-dimensional cut-outs but flesh and blood.

Director Bill Coons continues his good work of bringing new drama to the Upper Valley. I’ve seen a number of Coons productions now, but it occurred to me watching The Other Place that one of his talents as a director is, in a sense, his invisibility. There are no flashy tricks or ostentatious directorial flourishes. The audience’s attention is where it should be: on the characters and the actors who inhabit them.

The Other Place continues at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield through April 13. For information and reservations, call 603-448-3750.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.