Playwright: Sharr White. At: Profiles Theatre, The Main Stage, 4139 N. Broadway. Tickets: 773-549-1815 or www.profilestheatre.org; $35-$40. Runs through April 5
Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble member Laurie Metcalf received a slew of critical raves and a Tony Award nomination for her performance in Sharr White's drama The Other Place. With the unreliable narrator character of Boston neurologist Julianna Smithton, White had written a role demanding a supreme acting workout from any actress since it runs the emotional gamut.
Metcalf first starred in The Other Place off-Broadway in 2011 and then when it transferred to Broadway in 2013. So there were Chicago theater fans who understandably hoped that The Other Place would be another triumphant acting vehicle for Metcalf to return to Steppenwolf.
Instead, the Chicago premiere of The Other Place has landed at Profiles Theatre, which has become a Windy City home to White's work after previously producing his drama Annapurna last season. More Profiles connections to White continue since its Annapurna co-star Lia D. Mortensen is now playing Julianna in The Other Place.
Mortensen certainly commands the stage as a professional woman at a career pinnacle, especially as she clinically and sarcastically picks apart the way she can command a convention room full of well-heeled male doctors during a pharmaceutical speech at a St. Thomas island resort. But Mortensen also convincingly gets across how this is all a calculated facade for a flood of insecurities inundating Julianna.
There's a crumbling marriage to her oncologist husband, Ian ( Steve Silver ), and careful negotiations for a reunion with her long-estranged daughter and son-in-law, Laurel ( Autumn Teague ) and Richard ( Matt Maxwell ). On top of all of this, Julianna gets extremely defensive when dealing with Dr. Cindy Teller ( Nina O'Keefe ) when her own health takes an unsettling turn for the worse.
Much of what White does in his writing to keep the audience gripped is to have them discover along with Julianna the many uncomfortable truths about her life despite her fervent denials. And many of them have to do with the location of the play's titular place, a second family home out on Cape Cod that serves as the location for Julianna's painful separation with her daughter.
Director Joe Jahraus dramatically reveals "the other place" by having large sheets of gauzy fabrics by set designer Keenan Minogue ( which mostly as a background for Smooch Medina's projection designs ) collapse to the floor in the dramatically illuminating scenes about Julianna's troubled past and present. Jahraus certainly pushes his actors through an emotional wringer, especially Mortensen as Julianna and later Silver as Ian, who turns out to be more resilient than expected.
With The Other Place, Profiles has a gripping hit on their hands. True, it may not feature the star who originated the leading role, but it's a case where the engrossing writing gets to shine along with the dedicated cast.