Emmy Winner Marg Helgenberger Riveting

Stars in The Other Place by Sharr White at Barrington Stage

By: - Jun 06, 2014

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The Other Place
by Sharr White
Directed by Christopher Innvar
Scenic and projection designer, Brian Prather; costume designer, Kristina Sneshkoff; lighting designer, Scott Pinkney; original music and sound designer, Anthony Mattana.
Barrington Stage Company

St. Germain Stage, Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center
36 Linden St., Pittsfield.
Tickets: $40 and up. (413) 236-8888
Cast: Juliana Marg Helgenberger, The Woman Katya Campbell, Ian Brent Langdon, The Man Adam Donshik
Through June 14. Eves.: 7:30 Tue.-Sat. Mats.: 4 Sat.; 3 Sun.; additional matinee 4 June 12.

Emmy winner Marg Helgenberger is negotiating a mid career transition from the small screen to live theatre.

It is a serendipitous thrill that a superstar of Helgenberger’s wattage has opted to make that debut in the Berkshires.

Based on a stunning performance as the tough as nails Juliana Smithon, in Sharr White’s tense and taut The Other Place, skillfully directed by Christopher Innvar, it won’t be long before she lights up Broadway in another play.

More likely taking this production back home to LA as she hinted during a meeting with the media. The play has already had its New York run and it is too soon for a revival. At the time of the press conference questions about more work in theatre hinged on a second season for a TV show, Intelligence, that has since been cancelled.

This out of town production, a coup for Barrington Stage Company, gives her the opportunity to work on technique before tackling Broadway and the West End. Given this blistering romp that’s a safe bet.
During a meet and greet she described this role as the most challenging of her career.

Where a TV series allows for developing a character in increments here the complex, multi-valent role, with daunting twists and devastating turns, is compressed into one act and just under an hour and a half.

Her presence speaks to the quality of theatre in the Berkshires as well as the sophistication and risk taking of audiences. On the night we attended they were totally enthralled by her performance. From the buzz in the lobby this was widely viewed as a very special occasion.

It is why stars like Helgenberger are willing to make under the radar appearances here.

A couple of seasons ago the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s run of Elephant Man with superstars Bradley Cooper and Patricia Clarkson sold out in a flash. That production is now booked for Broadway and destined for Tony nominations.

Surely there are challenges for actors used to looking into a camera. An entirely different discipline is required to project to the last row. Unless you are close, which is the case on the intimate St. Germain stage, you won’t catch all the inflections of actors more used to showing emotion with their faces than full body. There is a difference between speaking to the camera in a natural voice and being heard in the balcony.

Which is an ongoing problem when Hollywood and TV stars are cast to sell tickets on Broadway.

In this production none of her subtle nuances were lost on us from just a few rows away.

At close range we observed a rail thin, remarkably fit, middle aged woman. “I’m 53” she proclaims. Helgeberger, a tall drink of water, was poured into a form fitting, business like pants suit and unobtrusive blouse. She negotiated the evening on black spiked heels. Now and then she tossed a bouncy mane of strawberry blonde hair that looked quite natural as did her understated makeup.

While stunning for a woman of a certain age in this play she portrays an alleged grandmother.

The status and circumstances of her family are much in question.

Little or nothing in The Other Place are what they initially appear to be.

Critics have been asked not to be spoilers of a drama that depends on elements of surprise. So there’s not a lot I can reveal about the plot.

There are, however, awkward ironies.

Juliana is a brilliant medical researcher who has given up practice to promote a drug she developed targeting previously incurable aspects of dementia. Which, guess what, she appears to be afflicted with. Another twist is that her estranged husband Ian (Brent Langdon) is an oncologist.

There are tense scenes with The Woman (Katya Campbell) a consulting physician whom Juliana spars with. In another scene, the most compelling of the evening, Campbell is her ersatz daughter.
Another multiple character is The Man (Adam Donshik) but I’m not quite sure how he helps this drama.

Weak supporting characters are the fatal flaw of a disorienting and inconsistent play by White. The Other Place is primarily a diva vehicle for its leading lady. The other characters are of such trivial consequence that they don’t equate. There's not much there for the other actors to sink their teeth into. We never quite know how to respond to Ian who often seems as confused by Juliana’s erratic behavior as we are.

The play may not make sense but Helgenberger’s Juliana grabs us by the throat and won’t let go until the final curtain. She gives a sensational performance providing a fabulous and memorable evening of theatre.

Helgenberger should feel richly satisfied by the support she receives. The first class direction and production allow her to shine. The scenic and projection design by Brian Prather is inventively brilliant.

In one of the most complex and key scenes Juliana gives a slide presentation of her wonder drug for an assembly of doctors. The projected imagery of cells and DNA structures are visually gorgeous. During this sales pitch she switches from amplified speech to off mike asides to the audience. These transitions from character to narrator are complex and require razor sharp direction and timing.

While we become enthralled by this self absorbed, powerful, bitchy woman (we don’t say that about Alpha males) reluctantly we feel empathy as she looses control and struggles with deeply hidden humanity.

Her off putting response to family issues is to throw money at them. Not just offensive as a substitute for care providing it just doesn't work. It derails any compassion we might feel for her. Writing checks can't buy love.

Much of the familial chaos and breakdowns that gradually flatten her persona and ego are self inflicted. Juliana is not a likeable and sympathetic character. It is a triumph for Helgenberger that against our best instincts she gets us to feel for her.

Kudos to Katya Campbell who was superb in that final scene which we can’t discuss. The chemistry, which as actors put them on equal footing, created a tsunami of emotion which crashed over a stunned audience.

Just one quibble. That key scene was staged with the women seated on the floor and out of the sight lines of most of the audience. I’m tall and had to strain to see what was going on. It wouldn’t have diminished the emotional impact to move the action to the more visible table.

As an evening of fascinating and absorbing theater Barrington’s The Other Place is as good as it gets. It sets the bar high with the launch of another Berkshire season.