What happens when a world-renowned scientist — a specialist in brain research — has to confront the fear that her own brain may be failing? That’s one of the questions explored in Taos Onstage’s production of “The Other Place,” Sharr White’s award-winning play, opening today (April 20) for a two-week run at Metta Theatre, 1470 Paseo del Pueblo Norte in El Prado. The play is directed by Lynn Hamrick.
“The Other Place” had an off-Broadway premiere in 2011, then moved to Broadway. White spoke about his work in a 2013 interview with National Public Radio’s Flora Lichtman. “It’s a play about the smartest woman on earth, who discovers that actually nothing she knows is true. She is really the ultimate narrator — sorry, the ultimate unreliable narrator. ... Things start to go wrong with her because it’s told so closely from her perspective. As she starts to break down, we sort of really experience it along with her.”
Charlotte Keefe, who is the Taos Onstage board president and plays the scientist, described the play as a haunting and brisk psychological drama. “It is a mystery play — on more than one level and in more than one time and place.
The play begins with a first-person narrative from the perspective of Juliana Smithton, a world-class scientist now working for a drug company. She is launching a new pill that she has helped develop. During a pitch to an audience of doctors, she has an ‘episode.’ She is convinced she has a brain tumor. Throughout the play, there is theatrical sparring with her oncologist husband, Ian, regarding medical truths and marital deceptions.”
Keefe said, “This has been one of the most challenging roles I have had the opportunity to have. Juliana finds her world crumbling around her. She believes she is the smartest person in any room, which makes her vulnerable at the same time. She believes her intelligence can protect her, but in the end, she cannot refute the inevitable.”
According to Keefe, “Lynn Hamrick is an amazing director. She has been the expert coach who has helped me find different layers and colors of Juliana’s personality and psychological existence. Through the process of developing the play as a whole, she has been our teacher and mentor.”
Hamrick brings serious credentials to the Taos stage. Her directorial experience includes film, television and theater. She is currently wrapping a documentary, “Hiro’s Table.” Her next project is the feature film “I’m Your Man,” executive produced by Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis and Davis’ husband, Julius Tennon. Hamrick is also an accomplished thespian and has appeared in many plays here in Taos.
“I’m grateful to Taos Onstage for the opportunity to direct ‘The Other Place’ with such wonderful co-creators,” she said. “I first started working on the play at the West Coast Actor’s Studio in Los Angeles. I directed two scenes in the directing unit with actors from the studio. I never felt I quite penetrated the material, so I was very happy when Taos Onstage wanted to include it in their season with me directing the full-length play because it would give me the opportunity to deepen my understanding of Sharr White’s vision.”
She spoke about the directorial experience. “You have to throw caution to the wind and just go for it while you gain everyone else’s trust in the process. And theater is an imperfect art. You can always make it better; you never really arrive. It is a continuous, ever-changing process. Every performance is different than the one that came before. And that is the beauty of live theater.”
Because of her pre-production schedule for “I’m Your Man,” which will be shooting in New Orleans, Louisiana, this summer, Hamrick had to make the most of the time she could be in Taos for rehearsals. “I had all of the actors get off book before we started. My assistant director, Chelsea Reidy, was invaluable in this process. The actors were brave to take this on. But they did it and I think it was a worthwhile experience for them. I know for me it helped to hit the ground running. There is so much text in this play and no intermission – and particularly for the character of Juliana, who is onstage the entire time, it is a marathon. Charlotte Keefe was very disciplined and courageous tackling the material.”
The play also features Stan Riveles as Juliana’s husband, Ian. Their marriage is a complicated one. They share guilt about a daughter who ran away from home, and they struggle to balance their personal lives and vocations.
“I play the role of Dr. Ian Smithton, husband of Dr. Juliana Smithton,” Riveles said. “Both are highly educated scientists with deep professional careers and obligations. Juliana is a highly trained neuroscientist with major pharmaceutical patents to her name. Ian is an oncologist.
Emotionally, Ian is very committed to his wife and definitely in awe of her intelligence and force of personality. But their professional commitments mean that they often lead separate lives until some crisis or other forces them to confront the consequences for their marriage and their careers.”
Nick Boeder and Elayna Snyder complete the ensemble, playing characters identified only as “The Man” and “The Woman.”
“I think they all stepped up to the plate for this production,” Hamrick said of her cast. “So, too, Diane Davis and Sheryl Bhame behind the scenes. The play deals with loss on many levels. It is not an easy ride and it requires the audience to listen intently and put the pieces together as the play progresses. But in the end, I think the playwright has given us a work that merits the effort.”
Taos Onstage is sponsoring an exhibit of work by Taos Academy art students in the Metta lobby, and the box office will open at 6:30 p.m. so that audiences can enjoy the artwork before the show.
Performances of “The Other Place” are today through Saturday (April 20-22) and April 27-29 at 7:30 p.m. There are also matinees on Sunday (April 23) and April 30 at 2 p.m. For advance tickets, call (575) 224-4587 or order online at taosonstage.com.