Catherine McClements and David Roberts in The Other Place | The Playhouse (Pic: David Parker)

The house lights do not dim for the opening scene of the Melbourne Theatre Company’s latest production. Instead, Dr Juliana Smithton assumes the stage and begins to deliver a medical conference lecture. The doctor, a well-groomed 50-something, is utterly in control, even taking time out from her talk about protein folding to work the room.

But everything is not as it seems. Smithton’s lecture turns out to be a pharmaceutical sales pitch. And she’s far from the unflappable and brilliant scientist she appears. She just doesn’t know it yet.

Smithton has an “episode” during the lecture, in which she sees a girl in a yellow bikini in the audience and mercilessly taunts her, only for her to disappear. Awash with remorse, Smithton realises that she knows the girl. This is the start of her attempts to uncover what happened to the mysterious girl, and why her husband and doctor seem to be hiding the truth from her.

It wouldn’t be fair to disclose what happens next, but suffice to say The Other Place takes as its focus Smithton’s creeping discovery she is not who she thinks she is, and may not have been for quite some time.

With a fast-paced, talky sensibility and noirish leanings, it’s easy to see why Sharr White’s breakout play has been such a hit on Broadway. But although it has the trappings of a psychological thriller, the sense of mystery is all but used up in the play’s first half. What follows is a story that is essentially a domestic melodrama, lent humanity and heft by a solid cast and poignant direction.

The play’s strengths include a stand-out performance from Catherine McClements as Smithton, a character who can appear at once monstrous and utterly deserving of sympathy. McClements sports a hyper-articulated New England accent which is a counterpoint to the anomia that later overtakes her character as she descends into confusion. Heidi Arena is excellent in a range of supporting roles, bringing an easy charisma to the play’s most devastating scenes.

The play’s treatment of illness is one of its greatest sources of pathos; there’s an honesty to the way we see not just Smithton’s medical “episode”, which starts the play, but also many of the tortuous steps that follow: the fraught family conversations, the medical appointments, the fretting over diagnoses, the incremental decline in health and mental outlook. The play reveals that even amongst the most serious of illnesses, there is still hierarchy. There are the terminal illnesses that Smithton is frankly at home with, and then there are those that she is unwilling to countenance. Where other playwrights would draw a veil over these mechanisms of sickness, White takes us into them and makes them part of the story, in some small way dignifying them by dramatising them. The fact he is able to do this within the play’s thriller-esque format is a testament to his deftness.

But there’s a superficial quality to the way the play’s larger themes are handled that makes The Other Place oddly unsatisfying. Drama, the truism goes, is powered by the transformation of character — as this drama unfolds, Smithton does indeed change. In the first half she appears increasingly suspicious, controlling and fiercely jealous; later she achieves a sort of calm and acceptance. But is what we are seeing some kind of epiphany, or merely the dismantling of Smithton’s identity as illness takes over? The play doesn’t give us the tools, or the time, to think about this question, ending instead on a note of pharmaceutically-sponsored medical utopianism, and a grainy video sequence that will hit many audience members squarely on the nose.

Oddly enough, this is the second MTC play in the last year about a female scientist whose sense of certainty is called into question — Richard Bean’s The Heretic played last May. But while The Other Place makes scientific noises, it doesn’t explore science beyond the most cursory references: in a positively Dickensian co-incidence, it turns out that Smithton’s illness is the very disease she was researching a cure for. The fact that this glib irony is the key “scientific” plot point is a sign this is not a play to enjoy for its searching themes, but rather for its skilled delivery and the fact it spins a compelling narrative out of a debilitating and tragic illness.

The details: The Other Place is at The Playhouse, Arts Centre until March 2. Tickets on the MTC website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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