|Scene from "The Other Place." Left to right Ricardo Vila-Roger, Virginia Wall Gruenert and Mark Conway Thompson|
To introduce its new patrons to the kind of theater that stokes the mind, senses and spirit, artistic director Virginia Wall Gruenert chose playwright Sharr White’s fittingly titled "The Other Place."
Gruenert, who dazzled in the debut production, "Shaken & Stirred," at the Washington location, picked up where she left off in Carnegie by tackling a behemoth role, one that anchors both the show and the four character cast.
When the lights go up, we find her as a biochemist named Juliana talking about a recent experience in which she addressed a room full of doctors about the efficacy of a new drug that treats dementia. In the middle of her talk, we learn that she spotted a woman sitting amidst the physicians dressed only in a yellow bikini, a sight that produced spontaneously what she calls an "episode."
The play then segues into a new location where Juliana is seeing a physician, believing she might have brain cancer. As her story unfolds even more, we also learn of her suspicions that her husband is philandering behind her back at the same time she’s facing a medical crisis.
The play’s scenes change frequently from the doctor’s office, back to the room where she gave her talk and to her home, where she aggressively confronts her husband, Ian, played by Mark Conway Thompson as a patient man who listens to his wife’s charges of infidelity and earnestly disavows them.
Complicating matters even more is the couple’s estranged daughter, Laurel, who left home at the age of 15 with one of Juliana’s research assistant and hasn’t been heard from in more than a decade. While her mother tries to cope with the onset of her recent malady and her rapidly disintegrating marriage, Laurel abruptly renews contact with her by phone.
For most of the play, the script is written puzzle-like and challenges the audience to follow along so as not to miss the important pieces. Director Melissa Hill Grande makes sure the audience is aware of the scene changes by doing things like dimming the lights and putting the spotlight on Gruenert, while the other characters make their entrances and exits.
Erika Cuenca has the onerous task of playing three separate roles, but manages to evoke distinctly differentiated characters with finely tuned nuances. Ricardo Vila-Roger nicely fills in the gaps in a rather ancillary role.
The play comes to a climax when Juliana goes to visit her daughter at the family’s summer home in Cape Cod (the other place), when all of the questions as to what is really happening in Juliana’s life begin to take shape.
Kudos to set designer, Gianni Downs, whose initial minimalist, somewhat abstract design cleverly evolves into a more detailed, realistic setting, then transforms once again to serve as a movie screen which reveals the identity of the girl in the yellow bikini.
Overall, the weight of the play falls mainly on Gruenert’s shoulders, and she manages to carry everything off with a commanding tour de force performance. The production, the exemplary cast and the creative tech crew combine to establish the benchmark and set tone for Off the Wall’s future endeavors as the seasoned theater finds its way in its new and cozy digs in Carnegie.
"The Other Place" is at the Off The Wall Theater, 25 W. Main Street in Carnegie, at 8 p.m. on October 18, 19, 20, 25, 26 and 27 and at 3 p.m. on October 21. Tickets are $35 for adults, $20 for seniors and $5 for students.. Phone 724-873-3576 or www.insideoffthewall.com.