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Next Act Theatre's "The Other Place" features a dynamic performance by Deborah Staples.

The Other Place

The spirits of Willy Loman and Blanche DuBois loom large in Sharr White’s The Other Place, a 21st-century reboot of the Memory Play, a genre that flourished during American theater’s Golden Age. As in Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, the main character exists in a swirl of reality, illusion, and memory.

In Next Act Theatre’s moving new production, Deborah Staples embraces the central role—a research scientist named Juliana—with verve and intelligence. And a superb supporting cast, directed by David Cescarini, lets White’s complicated play-of-ideas land with poignancy and considerable emotional impact.

Deborah Staples and Cristina Panfilio
Photo by Ross Zentner

When we first meet her, Juliana is all business. Pitching her newly developed anti-dementia drug to a medical convention, she’s confident, even caustic. Staples projects the armor of ego and sarcasm that helps Juliana thrive in the man’s world of doctors and medical research. But it soon becomes clear that something isn’t quite right. As Juliana tells her story, we sense more and more that she’s an unreliable narrator.

Echoing the confusion that plagues his main character, White makes the early scenes of The Other Place a swirl of events that jump forward and backward in time. We’re listening to Juliana’s speech, then we’re in her doctor’s office, discussing an “episode” that interrupted that speech. Then we’re at her home, talking to her husband, Ian (Todd Denning) Or is it her ex-husband? Then listening in on Juliana’s phone call with Laurel, the estranged daughter who has recently returned to her life. Or has she?

Cristina Panfilio, Todd Denning, Deborah Staples and Di’Monte Henning.
Photo by Ross Zentner.

It’s a loopy, mind-bending ride, which eventually takes us to “the other place,” a Cape Cod beach house obviously close to Juliana’s heart. Here, in a beautifully detailed and paced scene, she encounters a woman (Cristina Panfilio) who embodies Tennessee Williams’ “kindness of strangers” without irony. The truth of Juliana’s story, which we have been tumbling toward since her first words, becomes painfully clear. Staples reaches deep to show her character’s ravaged vulnerability. Panfilio slowly lets the truth sink in, and the pair find moments of inspiring tenderness over a few containers of Chinese take out.

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This gentle, touching moment lands with such power because Cecsarini builds the play with an eye and ear for clarity and emotional truth. The ensemble (which also includes Di’Monte Henning) play characters who exist in a continuum between their own lived reality and Juliana’s imagination—a subtle path to negotiate. But Cecsarini and his actors find just the right steps, and create a deeply profound story about the tenacity with which we hold on to our fragile connections with the world and each other.

 

On the Horizon

Local stages are busy with shows that have opened in past weeks, but if you’ve seen them all, there’s plenty of music to keep your February weekend warm.

The Florentine Opera’s Studio Artists croon a little amor in your direction with Romance Española concert of music from Spain and Latin America that’s sure to generate a little heat. 

Christoph König

 

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra continues its very busy winter schedule with the return of the MSO Chorus, who will sing Francis Poulenc’s stirring Gloria with guest conductor Christoph König. The program also includes Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, and the Belfagor Overture by that splashy Italian, Ottorino Respighi. 

And if you haven’t bopped over to the new Jazz Estate yet, this weekend is a fine opportunity. On Saturday, the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music’s resident jazz ensemble, We Six, holds forth. 

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