Her interest piqued by press reports, actor Linda Kelsey made plans to catch the off-Broadway production of “The Other Place” during a trip to New York a few years ago. In particular, Kelsey was curious about the role of Juliana Smithton, around whom Sharr White’s play revolves. It was a juicy role for a woman of a certain age, the kind of work that is rare in theater.
Kelsey liked the production enough that she told her traveling companion she wanted to do the play in the Twin Cities.
“We were on the plane returning and she said, ‘I just saw this play, I’m going to get the script and you’re going to direct me in it,’ ” said director Aditi Kapil.
Kelsey sold Park Square artistic director Richard Cook on the deal and three years after that initial spark, the production opens Friday at the Park Square thrust stage in St. Paul.
“I was captivated by the role and I knew Aditi could pull things out of me that come from hard places,” Kelsey said. “It’s a strange play that needs someone with chutzpah.”
Really? Do tell.
This is where Kelsey and Kapil clam up, unwilling to spoil the surprise revelations. “The Other Place” is sort of a mystery thriller that Kapil says “is structured like a puzzle that needs to be solved in its own time and way.”
Here’s what can be said: “The Other Place” marked the Broadway debut of playwright White (who incidentally will have his play “Annapurna” produced next fall by the Jungle Theater).
Laurie Metcalf, who played Juliana in the production Kelsey watched, won an Obie for her performance and later was nominated for a Tony when the show moved to Broadway.
Juliana is a brilliant woman who suffers a senior moment during a speech at a conference. This might not mean much but Juliana is supposed to be in her early 50s — too young for such a slip — and she fears that she’s developed a brain tumor.
Meanwhile, Juliana is divorcing her husband — who is also an oncologist. Throw in a distant relationship with a daughter and you have the elements of the play. What happens from there needs best to remain a secret.
“The play is an amazing mechanism, a phenomenal play for an actor,” said Kapil of the thorny role of Juliana. “Linda is one of the more fearless actors I’ve worked with.”
In fact, Kapil and Kelsey were traveling out east to catch up with a production of Kapil’s “Agnes Under the Big Top” at Long Wharf, up the road from New York in New Haven, Conn. Kelsey had acted in the premiere at Mixed Blood and Kapil said they had “an amazing time working together.”
Given the role’s heft and psychological journey — not to mention Kelsey’s fortitude as an actor — Kapil determined that she would need to cast “a heavyweight who can push back against her” in the role of the husband. She thought of James A. Williams, a veteran of several Twin Cities stages but best known for his interpretations of August Wilson characters here and across the country.
“I want her to be at the top of her power, I don’t want her ever to hold back, and to do that you need to cast a heavyweight as her counterpart,” Kapil said.
“I’ve never worked with J.W.,” Kelsey said. “This has been wonderful for both of us.”
Part of the intrigue with the play is its sense of shifting balance. Juliana’s situation draws out her instability.
“It’s a real trip for the audience to unwind it,” said Kelsey. “There are disagreements and you’re left wondering, who is right and who is acting like a jerk?”
This is a big play for Kelsey — she’s on stage for all 90 minutes, no intermission. The Park Square thrust stage is an intimate room and she will be right in the lap of the audience. When she spoke to a reporter a couple of weeks ago, she said she had just the day before started to get her feet under her in rehearsal.
“Speaking of getting older, I refuse to entertain the idea that it has ever been an easy thing to memorize lines,” she said. “In the last 48 hours, I’ve started to feel that I’m on it now and I know the requirements of the play.
“I know where I have to be, and that’s to be the main driver of the piece. It depends on my ability.”