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 Off the Wall’s ‘Other Place’ offers much to admire
        Author(s): Doug Shanaberger
        For the Observer-Reporter Date: October 20, 2012 Page: 6C Section:
        ENTERTAINMENT

 “I’m glad I didn’t know what this is about before I came here tonight,” said
 one of my friends after a recent performance of “The Other Place” at Off
 the Wall Theater. He made a good point, which I’ll get to later. And the
 remark came as the first step toward much thoughtful praise, not because
 he was expressing dissatisfaction with Sharr White’s dramatic character
 study for committing any of the offenses that routinely bother theatergoers.

 Here is a play that doesn’t indelicately explore a subject matter that most
 people would rather avoid. It won’t make viewers uncomfortable. And, no,
 it wasn’t crafted to become the latest polarizing experience, one that
 separate viewers into those two common camps, “loved it” and “hated it.”

 On the contrary, audiences visiting Off the Wall’s new home in Carnegie
 will find a great deal to admire in White’s gripping story and many reasons
 for cheering its lead actress, Virginia Wall Gruenert, who – besides
 surpassing her superb work in Off the Wall’s staging of “ ‘night, Mother”
 two years ago – delivers a performance that serves as the backbone of an
 intelligent, moving production.

 But it’s also a play of strategically-placed surprises, all of them quiet, and
 with it comes several unforeseen turns – the kind that shouldn’t be ruined
 with spoilers. Let me add, too, that if you’ve heard “The Other Place”
 grimly described as being about illness and tragedy (the sort of fare you’d
 see following the announcement “Tonight on the Hallmark Channel …”),
 try letting the play speak for itself.

 White, it has to be said, skates around a few clichés throughout her play,
 and many of them are, I guess, inevitable. You may even feel a groan rising
 from the pit of your stomach when you hear the main character, an
 esteemed biophysicist named Julianna Smithton, reveal that she’s beginning
 to panic over her recent memory lapses and episodes of erratic behavior.

 Brain cancer, she tells her estranged husband. But is it really?
Visits to a doctor follow, as do scenes that show how deeply Julianna has
plunged into the sort of crisis over which no woman, no matter how strong
she’s perceived to be, would have any control. And these scenes are
among the most powerful directed Melissa Hill Grande, working for the
first time at Off the Wall. They aren’t predictable. They aren’t too familiar.

Neither, for that matter, is Julianna. She’s a force to be reckoned with
when we first meet her, a woman prone to sarcasm, acidic quips and
outbursts that have alienated the people closest to her.

Gruenert doesn’t sentimentalize Julianna, though, and doesn’t soften the
needles of her prickly exterior. The actress plays a difficult character with
all the intensity and bravado White must have intended, while letting anguish
and fear come to the surface gradually, as if she didn’t want it to. I don’t
think I’ve ever felt so much sympathy for a character whose inclination
would be to reject it.

“The Other Place” also provides excellent moments for Mark Conway
Thompson as Julianna’s husband, Ricardo Vila-Roger as her son-in-law,
and Erika Cuenca in three roles, including Julianna’s daughter and, near the
end of the play, a compassionate stranger who gives Julianna what she
needs but can’t admit to wanting: a shoulder to cry on.

“The Other Place”

Off the Wall Theater

Through Oct. 27

412-394-3353

Three and a Half Stars


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