In that sad little circle of social-media hell reserved for the compulsively indignant, some bloggers have been decrying the fact that apparently able-bodied actors Eddie Redmayne and Julianne Moore won Oscars Sunday for playing disabled characters—Redmayne for impersonating ALS-afflicted Stephen Hawking, Moore for pretending to be a woman with early-onset dementia. “You know who would be remarkable at transforming themselves into disabled people? Of really getting into the mind of someone in that situation and understanding their motivations?” wrote Amy Stockwell of Mamamia Women’s Network, her scorn outstripping her syntax. “Yep, people with a disability.”
Never mind, oh, so many little things, like the tricky logistics of getting someone with ALS to portray the pre-wheelchair Hawking. What’s annoying about screeds like this is their hostility toward the possibilities of empathy and skill. In the world of the new electronic puritans, where transformation is theft, the only good actor is the one who isn’t acting. Henceforth, all movies must be documentaries.
And all stage works, I guess, must be lec/dems. In any case, I very much doubt that Stockwell would condone the current Profiles Theatre production of Sharr White’s The Other Place—yet another drama about a disability, callously featuring people who may not actually have it.
White’s 2011 play centers on 52-year-old Julianna, a high-powered medical researcher whose work has led to the synthesis of a drug, Identamyl, that may slow or even stop the progress of a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Confident that Identamyl will yield fabulous wealth, she’s abandoned her lab to do the PowerPoint circuit, pitching it to doctors at conferences held in posh Caribbean resorts.
It’s during one such presentation that Julianna gets the first figurative kick in the head suggesting that her own synapses may be misfiring. She insists that she’s got a tumor, but that may be wishful thinking of a sort, since brain cancer is at least theoretically survivable whereas Alzheimer’s isn’t. The rather too perfect fact is that Julianna suffers from the very disease she’s been trying to cure.
The Other Place is full of contrivances like that, all of them deployed in the interests of turning mortal agony into a ripping yarn. An unapologetically calculating storyteller, White isn’t afraid, for instance, to use Julianna’s confusion to trigger confusion in an audience. Time and again we’re forced to wonder (yes, as if we were the ones with dementia) whether we can believe what we’re seeing. What’s Julianna’s real relationship with husband Ian? With daughter Laurel? With former lab assistant Richard? Are events unfolding in the present, the past, or the damaged imagination? White’s script sets up mysteries—and punch lines too, often enough—to enrich the essential business of heartstring tugging.
It also provides a killer role for any actress, disabled or otherwise, in Julianna—a woman of evident wit and ambition who finds herself moved to paranoid hallucinations any time a little messenger protein happens to fuck with her brain. I saw Laurie Metcalf play Julianna two years ago on Broadway; she was tough—sinewy, even, in her well-toned swimmer’s body—but also possessed of a drop of midwestern reserve. At Profiles, under Joe Jahraus‘s direction, Lia D. Mortenson doesn’t hold back. Just as buff but more compact and thicker through the shoulders than Metcalf, with calf muscles that flex mightily when she wears high heels, Mortenson is nothing short of ferocious in her delusion-induced bouts of combativeness. The approach is vivid as hell in the short run but turns out to be a mistake because it tips us to Julianna’s pathology too early. Something similar holds true for Steve Silver as Ian: he loses our goodwill by losing his temper too easily—and despite his reputedly great medical prowess—with someone he knows can’t help herself. Daniel Stern had a better solution opposite Metcalf, offering a softer Ian, tortured by his own helplessness.
The Other Place feels like a departure for the Profiles folks, who built their excellent reputation in large part on harsher, more chaotic works. Maybe they’re trying to mellow toward the mainstream. If so, they’ve only half succeeded here. Elements like a second-act house interior, created by set designer Keenan Minogue, show sophistication. But the long white sheets that hide it during the first act look arbitrary enough that they spoil any good effect.