Woman of two worlds

Most people, I believe, store away in some secret corner of their mind a place of security, beauty and harmony. It may be a real or fictional place, but usually it is a mixture of truth and illusion, a fact transposed by memory, nostalgia and wishfulness into something else, an adult version of Linus’ security blanket.

Such is “the other place” in Sharr White’s play by the same name, now in a challenging and thought-provoking production at the Adobe Theater in Albuquerque.

The one-act, 90-minute play, which opened Off-Broadway in 2011 and on Broadway two years later, won numerous awards, including an Obie, and nomination for a Tony.

Cast of “The Other Place” (left to right): Maria Held, Defron Foster, Ronda Lewis and Eric Warner. Courtesy photo.

“The Other Place” is the story of a woman, Juliana Smithton (Ronda Lewis) and her transformations. First, tragedy and guilt transformed her into what she is as the play opens: hard, unfeeling, mean-spirited, a scientist who becomes a shill for a drug, a successful shaman.

Within 15 minutes of the play’s opening, she has managed to ridicule everybody she has come into contact with, including her husband, daughter, son-in-law, doctor and a member of the imaginary audience (an unseen “woman in a yellow bikini”) to whom she is giving a sophisticated medical sales pitch.

This transformation has actually occurred a decade before the play begins while we are only fully aware of it toward the end.

But the other transformation takes place before our eyes. The strong woman becomes pathetic. The well woman becomes sick. The sane woman loses touch with reality. I don’t want to be more explicit than this for fear of ruining the story for anyone who may see it. I’ll just say this transformation is utterly stunning. It is a credit to Lewis and director Matt Heath that the transformation is totally convincing. We actually see the woman implode before our eyes.

There is a serious problem, however, with this structure. The plot requires us to digest the Juliana of the opening scenes but to empathize with her later on as she declines. No matter how skilled the director and the actor in depicting this transformation, the audience is inclined to be stuck with the initial depiction of her as cold and mean. It is far harder for the observer to shift his emotions than for the actress to shift her presentation.

The most interesting, and most challenging, aspect of the play is a kind of sleight of hand: Nothing we think we know is true, nothing we see actually is happening, it’s all illusion.

(The play reminds me of a terrific novel I have just finished reading, “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” by the young Australian writer William Empson. Nearly 700 pages in length, it tells a story from seven points of view, none of them either right or wrong but all ambiguous, contradictory and incomplete. It’s a grand tour de force that captures the true uncertainty of our lives and our memories.)

The audience of “The Other Place” would be totally at sea if it were not for the grounding provided by several supporting characters, a kind of truth corrective, although doled out in small enough doses to keep us guessing and in suspense.

Most important of the supporting characters is the husband. Ian Smithton (Defron Foster) is a loving, supportive, stabilizing and eminently sane influence in Juliana’s life. For this reason, I grimaced when from time time he screamed in anger at his wife. I wished he had found quieter, more intense ways to express his frustration at the woman who, somewhat like a President we all know, seemed willfully oblivious to obvious truth. Nevertheless, the range of emotions Foster is able to express convincingly, from bitter tears to deep affection, is impressive.

The remaining two actors, Maria Held and Eric Werner, play multiple roles, indicating their change of character with a new costume and an easygoing adaptation to their shifting confrontations with the always difficult Juliana.

I was especially moved by Juliana’s concluding soliloquy, when she turns to the audience and declaims, “I am a woman in between—the sky and the earth, the past and the future, this place and the other.”

“The Other Place” continues through Nov. 11

at the Adobe Theater, 9813 4th St. NW in Albuquerque. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For tickets and information go to adobetheater.org or email info@adobetheater.org or call 505- 898-9222.