The Other Place

By Sharr Whiteprofiles theatre

Directed by Joe Jahraus

Produced by Profiles Theatre

Lia D. Mortensen Dives into Disintegrating Mind

The Other Place is a hard play to describe without misrepresenting or giving away some key plot points. What I can say about it is that it is divided into two parts, the first of which is delivered from the point of view of the main character, and the second of which is more traditionally naturalistic. In both parts Lia D. Mortensen’s portrayal of Julianna is emotionally intense and intellectually stimulating, but to play in both styles displays virtuosity that would be enough to make this play worth seeing by itself.

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The play begins with Julianna giving a lecture that is really a sales pitch for her laboratory to a conference of doctors in the Virgin Islands. Her area of interest is the brain, and projection designer Smooch Medina has designed seductive, brightly colored slides for her to shuffle through. Costume designer Raquel Adorno has supplied Julianna with tastefully sexy clothing appropriate for her fifty-two years, as another part of her slick presentation. Julianna explains that part of her way of establishing credibility is to ridicule other women in the room, and on this occasion, noticed a young woman wearing only a yellow bikini, who seemed perfect fodder. After demonstrating her acerbic wit, Julianna suffers some kind of “episode,” which includes loss of memory and paranoia. She assumes, based on family history, she has brain cancer.

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Julianna’s life had not been going well. She said she was in the process of separating from her husband, an oncologist named Ian (Steve Silver), but still agrees to see a doctor based on his recommendation. That doctor, Cindy Teller (Nina O’Keefe) does not put up long with Julianna’s attempts to intimidate her, and Julianna concludes that she and Ian are having an affair. Expecting she may not be around much longer, Julianna decides to reconcile with her daughter, Laurel (Autumn Teague), who eloped with Richard (Matt Maxwell), a former student of Julianna’s. She offers Laurel possession of “the other place,” a house in Cape Cod, but Laurel seems disinterested. After all these conflicts are presented to us non-linearly with a little help from Julianna’s narration, we think we understand this woman and her situation. But in fact, Julianna has dementia, rendering her narration completely unreliable, and we learn the truth from an outsider perspective.

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While we are inside Julianna’s head, she seems to be brave, smart, and sardonic, but even in her own recollections she comes across as unfair and abrasive. Seen from the outside and after her disease has progressed, Julianna is still alarming in the strength of her delusions, but also desperate for Laurel’s forgiveness. Mortensen is able to shift between the aggressively self-assured medical entrepreneur and a child-like wretch who needs to be fed so believably I accepted them unquestioningly as the same person. She is well-served by the rest of the cast. Silver’s Ian is still deeply in love with Julianna, but comes close to being overwhelmed not only by her hostility, but the painful memories she drags up. He struggles to know when it is right to humor her, and when to remind her of the devastating truth about their daughter and what they did to Richard. Teague returns as a different character who now lives in the Cape Cod house, and deals with Julianna reluctantly, but compassionately, in one of the play’s few gentle moments.

Working in a storefront space, director Joe Jahraus has created an intimate production with the actors very close to the audience for the first act. Later we see the house, realistically designed by Keenan Minogue, creating physical distance but retaining psychological connection. The story of Julianna’s descent never loses its possibility for hope, but is a wrenching experience. Sharr’s script presents an unusually complicated back story for his heroine to get lost in, but provides excellent material for Mortensen’s performance. This play is an ideal challenge for actors, and prospective audience members would do well to share in the reward.

Highly Recommended

Jacob Davis
[email protected]

Reviewed February 21, 2015

For more information, see The Other Place’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at Profile Theatre’s The Main Stage, 4139 N Broadway, Chicago. For tickets, call 773-549-1815. Tickets are $35-40. Plays Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 5:00 and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 7:00 pm through April 5. Running time is eighty minutes with no intermission.