WALKING A FINE LINE Lewis. [Photo by Kevin Broccoli]
Playwrights, those clever rascals, have no compunction about how they get us to empathize with their characters, which includes confusing us as an unreliable narrator slashes through the thicket of her own confusion, as in Sharr White’s The Other Place. Epic Theatre Company is nicely accomplishing that edifying disorientation, directed by Lara Hakeem (through November 23).
Juliana Smithton, played with absorbing intensity by Emily Lewis, is a 45-year-old neurologist with a nervous condition of her own that she is reluctant to diagnose — it’s too frightening. Over the course of 75 minutes, she unfolds an account of discovering her condition. At the time she was giving a sales pitch for a new drug — drolly named Identamyl — before doctors invited to a golfing junket in St. Thomas, touting the therapy she hopes will become a blockbuster moneymaker for her. As she elaborates on the slide presentation, she becomes disoriented and fears she has a brain tumor. She says her whole family died of cancer, so the likelihood seems obvious to her.
We go back and forth in time as Juliana recalls and re-examines her relationships with her estranged daughter Laurel (Kerry Giorgi) and husband Ian (Robert C. Rey-nolds). Laurel ran away from their strict home 10 years ago, when she was 15, perhaps with Juliana’s trusted grad student twice her age, Richard Sillner (Aaron Morris, in one of several incidental roles). Whether or not he did so, his career was destroyed by their accusing him.
Juliana tells her husband about phone calls she has been getting in recent years from a young woman, desperately hoping that the short conversations were with Laurel. Nowadays she expresses love to her daughter through offers of money and cases of good wine — if Laurel has in fact returned (what guilt there must have been if the reconciliation is only imaginary).
In a flashback scene we hear the adolescent screaming at her mother, who admits that they hit each other and that she told Laurel she wanted her out of the house. We can see how taking a year off of work to look for her daughter, as Juliana did, wouldn’t be enough for her to forgive herself.
The assembly of doctors listens to her rattle on about protein therapy and Alzheimer’s disease. They are likely disconcerted as she occasionally digresses to complain about or toss cruel verbal barbs at a young woman in a floral bikini, perhaps a guest at the hotel who wandered in out of curiosity. When the girl vanishes “into thin air,” did Juliana merely not notice her leaving or is she hallucinating?
Back home, she is reluctant to cooperate with the female doctor trying to diagnose her condition (Giorgi again), and once more we wonder about the accuracy of her information. Is her oncologist husband really a philandering cad, divorcing her to boot?
The “other place” of the title is a Cape Cod beach house that the family used to go to. Juliana returns there now, seeking remembered peace and comfort, even though it had been sold years before and the present occupant is frightened by the stranger in her kitchen.