Troubled places of the mind
Catherine McClements, left, and Nadia Tass track the mysterious unravelling of a woman in turmoil. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones
NO ONE is more surprised than New York playwright Sharr White to find his off-Broadway hit The Other Place making its Australian and Broadway premieres simultaneously courtesy of two MTCs on opposite sides of the globe. The Melbourne Theatre Company's production, starring Catherine McClements and directed by Nadia Tass, opens on January 31. The Manhattan Theatre Club's show, directed by Joe Mantello and starring Laurie Metcalf, opens on January 10.
''I'm pretty overwhelmed,'' White concedes. ''I feel very, very lucky. It's incredibly hard for a playwright to get produced. I've been writing literally every single day since 1993, and I was professionally produced for the first time only in 2006. I know a lot of writers who have a similar story. So to go from the American MTC to the Australian MTC in one fell swoop feels like a bit of a coup.''
The Other Place is a psychological thriller about a brilliant neurologist, Dr Juliana Smithton, whose life and mind start to unravel just as she appears to reach the top of her game professionally. Her marriage is in trouble, she believes those around her are lying to her and she senses her current turmoil began long ago at ''the other place''. But Juliana proves to be an unreliable guide to her own story, and the audience is left to piece together her mystery.
McClements, speaking a week into rehearsals for the lead role, admits she wasn't aware of White's play until Tass, an award-winning director of film and theatre, sent her the script. ''It's not one of those plays that was incredibly famous,'' she says. ''It was a play that was … off Broadway and was incredibly successful. It's something that Nadia discovered, in a way, and bought the rights to. That's how I found out about it.
''The play unfolds in a really interesting way, in that you're being told one story and then you realise that you're actually being told quite a different story. The character has had a traumatic life. Terrible things have happened to her. And through the course of the story she's able to come to some sort of peace, I suppose …'' The role of Juliana appealed precisely because it turns the conventional ''strong female character'' on its head.
''She is that classical, archetypal, strong female character but, in fact, very unreliable as your guide, and I've really enjoyed that shift,'' McClements says.
As with Juliana being slowly revealed to the audience, McClements says getting under her character's skin takes time. ''That's what rehearsals are, trying to construct a human being, I suppose, as much as you can possibly do that,'' she says. ''On the first reading you go, 'Oh, I get an idea of this character', but then the process of rehearsal is to open it up and pull it apart to get the contradictions, as well as making as complete a picture of someone as you can.''
Tass describes White as ''an amazing new voice to come out of America''. ''He has such a command on the human condition, on his understanding of people, relationships and behaviour,'' she says. ''It grips me. And that's what I see in this play. There's so much truth and a deep understanding, and that was the thing that really touched me. And on top of that, you're dealing with such major human issues but it's couched in a lightness, and there's humour all the way through it. The humour is so appealing. Obviously, it's in my work as well. That's what I do.''
Tass hasn't seen the American productions of The Other Place. And she admits to some trepidation about the unusual coincidence in which her Melbourne production premiere comes just weeks after the play opens on Broadway. ''It's challenging because obviously there are probably going to be comparisons and all sorts of things,'' she says. ''But I guess, really, the ultimate challenge is to remain true to the material.''
Tass discovered the script through a friend about 18 months ago and knew immediately she wanted to direct the play. When the MTC's incoming artistic director, Brett Sheehy, asked her what she most wanted to direct next, she gave him the script. Several months later, she had the green light.
Tass says her first reading of The Other Place had ''enormous impact''. ''The profound thing for me was the journey this woman undertakes into change … and the way she navigates those changes. I was most intrigued to find [out] where she was going to land.
''She's trying to make sense of her world and she's trying to find closure with something that happened a long time ago. And until [she] has closure of some kind, then she can't move forward. She's a woman who's desperate to decipher what really happened. She's at the top, she's in a man's world of science, fierce intellect, and it's really interesting to see how she remains a female within that world. That's really appealing, actually.
''And she's a mother, and she's a wife. It's all these complex tugs on this individual that are interesting because they're happening at the same time and she's got to deal with everything.''
It's a theme that resonates personally for the busy director, who managed to shoot a film and a US television project in between getting the go-ahead to direct The Other Place and starting rehearsals. ''At any one moment the phone rings and I'm called to the school, someone's broken a knee,'' she says. ''And in the next moment something's happened at a particular screening and the audience is waiting but there's a glitch in the technical equipment. Each one of us, we have these pressures on us, some of them domestic, some of them professional, and they all kind of want a piece of us.''
White says Tass's interest in his play came as a surprise. ''I think because I'd worked for so long to get American theatres to notice my work, really my first reaction was disbelief,'' he says.
''I thought, 'It'll be in some little hundred-seat house somewhere', and before I can blink, Nadia's doing it with MTC.''
White seems chuffed with Tass' assessment of his understanding of people and relationships. ''That's a very kind thing to say about a writer,'' he says.
''Writing plays is a terribly odd thing. Plays themselves are so odd. We're all sitting here in the dark watching people pretend to be something, and these actors are pretending for us. And if something's working very well on stage, they're pretending for themselves, too, which is when particular moments become so galvanising. But I do often sit and wonder to myself just what it is I think I'm doing.''
The Other Place began with White's fascination about the fate of someone who is, at heart, profoundly lost. ''I keep going back to this grain of what it is to be lost,'' he says.
''I think it's a very human thing to be lost. And in my stories I seem to have this lost person simply be noticed. Cared for. Cared about. It's what we all want, I think.
''For someone to notice you as lost and then create this little bridge so you can cross over with them and join the world.''
■ The Other Place is at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, January 31-March 2.