The Other Place. By Sharr White. Off the Wall Theater, 26 Main Street, Carnegie, PA. October 12 -27, 2012. Directed by: Melissa Hill Grande. With Erika Cuenca, Virginia Wall Gruenert, Mark Conway Thompson, Ricardo Vila Roger.
Off the Wall Theater’s production of The Other Place is a double Pittsburgh premiere: a play we haven’t seen, and a brand-new theater. A theater sentimentalist, I like to reminiscence about the quirks and hardships of remembered venues, where good things sometimes came in ugly packages. I recall The Pit, the University of Pittsburgh’s small theater with its vacant-warehouse vibe, where theatergoers had to peer around two posts planted right in front of the first row; and the Odd Chair Playhouse, with its museum of reclaimed chairs, somewhere south of the Monongahela; and the Upstairs on Penn Avenue in Garfield, which wasn’t upstairs. And will anyone who attended it forget the funky Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater venue on the second level of a downtown garage, and its second space, the Couch Theater, with, yes, couches on risers for seats?
Among these spaces, Off the Wall’s former theater in Washington, PA was as funky as any. First: It was in Washington. Then: It had a parking lot canted at a 30 degree angle, or so it seemed when it poured rain, as it so often seemed to when we ventured there. Up many steep steps, the theater space, which seemed to be a decommissioned church, was divided by a wide middle aisle, so that most of the seats felt off center no matter how good they were. And yet, we traveled from the East End of Pittsburgh to Washington many times for Off the Wall’s offerings, which most times were, as France’s Michelin Guide would say, “vaut le voyage”—worth the trip.
Well, huzzah. Off the Wall now has a sleek and worthy new theater in Carnegie, PA. Sorry, Washington. Across the street (Carnegie’s Main Street), a level public parking lot that’s free in the evenings; the theater handicap-accessible; very good coffee served in the lobby. As before, community-minded Off the Wall provides a showcase for artists. And there are nearby restaurants that look promising, including some that give sponsorship to the new theater.
But what, you ask, of the play? It’s taut and moving. The Other Place is a play centered on a confident, even arrogant, woman who specializes in introducing and promoting a new drug to conferences of physicians in luxurious resorts. Under Melissa Hill Grande’s direction, the play unfolds mysteries, present and past, in Juliana’s life, work, and relationships. She is a researcher whose breakthrough produced this drug, it seems. Seems, the operative word, because in brief scenes the play presents a kaleidoscope of views of Juliana, her husband Ian, their daughter, another physician, and other characters. Is Ian philandering? Is their daughter seeking a reunion with them? Why does Ian refuse to talk to Juliana about certain topics? What is the “episode,” or “thingy,” that causes Juliana to stop mid-stream in her practiced spiel? It happens “out of the blue,” and the setting takes its cue from this—the minimal, fluid set is all sky blue, with the backdrop abstracting windows and doors of “the other place” where she intermittently longs to be. Slides projected on the background illustrate Juliana’s sales spiel. In the second half of the play, parts of the set unfold to surprise with a more conventional and cosier setting—very appropriately.
Virginia Wall Gruenert, in the role of Juliana, is equal to the challenge of being onstage nearly every moment, shifting time, place, and tone, dominating the play. Mark Conway Thompson as her husband is convincing even at times when, I think, the script may use him as a convenience. Ricardo Vila Roger is effective in the smallest role. Erika Cuenca very capably undertakes several roles, switching back and forth easily but making the characters distinct, and in particular brings emotional warmth to the play’s resolution, which might be unconvincing in lesser hands. Finally, Juliana has a touching speech as simple as Lear’s self-recognition.
[Warning: the web site talks. http://www.insideoffthewall.com/ 1-888-71-TICKETS]