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Tamsin Kelsey in The Other Place. Kelsey plays Juliana, a 52-year-old neuroscientist who has developed a new drug to treat dementia.

DAVID HOU

2 out of 4 stars

Title
The Other Place
Written by
Sharr White
Directed by
Daniel Brooks
Actors
Tamsin Kelsey
Company
Canadian Stage
Venue
Bluma Appel Theatre
City
Toronto
Runs Until
Sunday, February 08, 2015

Madness has been a central subject of drama right from its roots – but the way playwrights have depicted it has changed along with larger society's understanding of it. We've moved from the godsent insanity of Herakles to the methodic (?) madness of Hamlet to the heavily medicated, clinical depression of Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis.

The current strain of madness infecting the theatre is very down to earth, informed by greater scientific understanding – and bigger societal fears – of diseases such as Alzheimer's. But today's playwrights, oddly, seem to be mostly concerned with one very particular type of character going mad: upper-middle-class intellectuals.

The Other Place, an American play by Sharr White that breezed through Broadway in 2013, is coy about its subject matter at first. Juliana (Tamsin Kelsey), a 52-year-old neuroscientist who has developed a new drug to treat dementia, is giving a presentation to a group of doctors at a conference in the Virgin Islands. Normally bright and possessed of a sharp tongue, Juliana becomes distracted by a mysterious girl in a yellow bikini – and, in asides to the theatre audience, annotates what is going on in her mind before she has her first "episode."

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Does Juliana have brain cancer – as she immediately claims – or is it something else? In its first half, White's play jumps back and forth between Juliana's presentation; scenes between her and her concerned oncologist husband Ian (Jim Mezon) and a doctor named Cindy (Haley McGee); and phone calls with her estranged daughter Laurel (McGee, again), who disappeared 10 years earlier, and her old research assistant Richard (the underused Joe Cobden), who may have disappeared with her.

Everything is mysterious, and information is withheld from the audience. How much of what this unreliable narrator is telling us – and what we're seeing – is true?

A kind of suspense does build in Daniel Brooks's chilly but cool production, and Canadian Stage is billing this as a "psychological thriller." But once White's scattershot structure disappears and the facts come into focus, all that really becomes clear is just how often we've been fed red herrings by the playwright.

There is a certain pleasure to take in Kelsey's brittle performance as a woman proud of having achieved a particular status in a man's world – and Mezon's large and emotional Ian provides a nice contrast, bringing some intensity and energy to a play and production otherwise very waspish.

But Brooks doesn't try to manipulate the audience – and that's to the detriment of The Other Place, in the end. Bare and spare, staged on an all-white set by Judith Bowden, his production allows us to see exactly how empty this play is – how devoid of real ideas or drama. Only the final moments have any impact – and that is largely due to very effective projections designed by Jamie Nesbitt.

In the last year alone, I have seen a Québécois public intellectual (in François Archambault's excellent You Will Remember Me), a university professor (in Alison Lawrence's Piece by Piece) and a brain surgeon (in Diane Flacks's Waiting Room) lose their minds to dementia.

It's not surprising that there would be so many new works on this subject, but it is a little depressing that so many playwrights feel audiences will only care about or relate to characters who have used their minds professionally losing them. (This is hardly limited to theatre – see Julianne Moore's Oscar-bait performance as a linguist with early-onset Alzheimer's in Still Alice.)

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The collective impression one gets from this flood of dementia dramas is that it's a terrible thing to lose your mind – if you're smart and educated like the average theatregoer. Might the real mental disease being depicted here be narcissism?

P.S. "The Other Place" is what Juliana calls her weekend home on Cape Cod; if there's a connection to Hamlet's famous use of the words to refer to hell, I couldn't figure it out.

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