Mystery, intrigue in Magic Theatre’s ‘Other Place’

Courtesy PhotoCaptivating: Henny Russell gives a nuanced performance as a research scientist in Magic Theatre’s beguiling production of “The Other Place.”

As Sharr White’s intense, compact new play, “The Other Place,” proceeds, mysteries deepen.

Why is Juliana, a middle-aged research scientist, consulting a doctor; is it true, as she is convinced, that she’s inherited the brain cancer that runs in her family?

Who is the woman in the yellow bikini incongruously seated among the doctors attending a medical conference at which Juliana is giving a promotional speech about a new drug — and what exactly is this new drug about anyway?

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Is Juliana’s oncologist husband, Ian, really a lying, cheating scumbag who’s about to divorce her? What did Juliana and Ian do to ruin the career of Richard, Juliana’s erstwhile postdoc? And what actually happened to their daughter, Laurel?

Not all of these questions will be answered in this West Coast premiere, astutely directed by Loretta Greco, which opens Magic Theatre’s season. And that’s as it should be: Life is full of open-ended mysteries, and White’s increasingly complex drama indeed feels lifelike.

Juliana narrates a series of fraught events in her adult life, punctuated by illustrative scenarios that scramble the chronology in intriguing ways.

The narration, and the scenes, are interspersed with her speech about a “blockbuster protein therapy” with the significant brand name Identamyl — significant because this is a play that explores, among other things, the elusive nature of individual identity.

But Juliana’s an unreliable narrator, and playwright White peels back layers of fact and fiction to ultimately arrive at a raggedly satisfying, even luminous, conclusion.

As Juliana, Henny Russell, who calls to mind the late Jill Clayburgh, is a deeply focused actor who fluidly moves through the script’s demanding emotional twists and turns, captivating even when the character is at her most acerbic and contentious.

She’s beautifully supported by Carrie Paff in three carefully crafted roles, most movingly as a high-strung young woman who’s forced by a difficult circumstance to rise above her own self-absorption.

Less successful is Donald Sage Mackay’s Ian; relying on overly loud delivery and histrionic rages, he misses the nuances of the authentic pain and confusion that the character must surely be experiencing.

Myung Hee Cho’s tidy set, which instantaneously turns into “the other place” (a remembered seaside cottage on Cape Cod) in full view of the audience; Brandon Wolcott’s subtle sound score; and Eric Southern’s lighting design boost a production that captures both heart and mind.

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