Role Playing: Lia D. Mortensen’s intense portrait of a mentally failing scientist holds mirror to life
Interview: Actress says her performance in Sharr White’s “The Other Place” at Profiles Theatre was shaped by her father’s death from brain cancer. The play runs through April 5.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
A very hard personal experience helped actress Lia D. Mortensen get into the skin of the brilliant scientist she portrays in Sharr White’s play “The Other Place” at Profiles Theatre. She had watched her father, Dale T. Mortensen, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in economic sciences, suffer the mentally eroding effects of brain cancer, which took his life in 2014.
Mortensen gives a galvanizing performance as Julianna, a biophysicist whose specialty is dementia – the very affliction that now has this brilliant scientist in its grip. White’s drama follows the fraught course of Julianna’s decline, from her denial that anything is wrong at all and fierce clashes with her devoted husband to a moment of grace, a brief window of clarity.
“Julianna is a lot like my dad,” says Mortensen. “His brilliance came with arrogance and impatience, the inability to speak down to people who didn’t have his brain capacity. But when he became ill, I watched him behaving in a way I couldn’t recognize as the same human being. In his mind, though, it was us who were behaving irrationally. I pulled from that in figuring out Julianna.”
Befitting a play about dementia, “The Other Place” does not follow a continuous narrative arc, but rather makes jump-cuts — from Julianna’s presentation of a break-through medication for dementia to a group of doctors, to tense confrontations with her husband Ian (played by Steve Silver) whom she suspects of infidelity, to abrupt clashes with the specialist who’s trying to get handle on her symptoms of anger, paranoia and simple forgetfulness.
“It was a very difficult play for me to finally get under my belt in the way it’s written structurally, not chronologically,” says Mortensen. “I couldn’t just get on the train of chronology and go with it. It’s like making movies, which are never shot chronologically. So you have no help getting to that emotional place of a given moment.
“So I began thinking, ‘OK, I’ve got all these things in my bag. Now I’m at the crazy place, now I’m sad, now I’m in brilliant scientist mode.’ You just have to commit and say to yourself, ‘When I need it, it will be there.’
“Julianna has taken a sharp turn into madness, and I knew that I was going to have to be fearless and just go for it,” says Mortensen. “I have to not care what you think about me, not worry if you like me or not. And that’s hard, especially for actresses. We’re the peace-makers and want to be liked. But I had to decide, ‘I’m going to be hateful.’ You experience a great freedom when you get there.”
If Mortensen had to screw her courage to the sticking place, she also needed more than the usual help an actor seeks from an audience. Julianna’s pitches for the new medicine are made directly to the audience in Profile’s intimate space, and there are powerful elements in those speeches that betray her disintegration.
“I look straight at you,” Mortensen says. “Some people can’t handle that, so I turn to another who can. Even though Julianna is suffering from dementia, she doesn’t know it. She is still a high-powered, intense woman and the audience has to feel that forceful personality. If I didn’t totally own her, the play would fall flat. She has to come across with ferocity.”
The scariest part of Mortensen’s journey was the brief time in which it had to be accomplished. She was still performing in “Pericles” at Chicago Shakepeare Theater when the calendar said it was time to begin rehearsals for “The Other Place.” The calendar had to wait.
“The short rehearsal time filled me with mind-blowing fear,” Mortensen said in a tone that sounded more present tense than past. “We had a little under three weeks to get this ready before tech rehearsals. But that can also be a good thing: You don’t have time to worry.”
She credits director Joe Jahraus, Profile’s co-artistic director, with keeping her calm, focused and confident. “Joe is such a kind, unassuming man. But from the first rehearsal, he blew my socks off with his insight, his ability to observe where each character is emotionally at every moment. I was really concerned that I wasn’t going to get there, and he had total faith that I would. He allowed me to breathe life into Julianna.
“I don’t care how long you’ve been doing this, we actors still want validation, to have a director pat us on the head. So I’d come to him and ask, ‘Is it working?’ And he would give me that reassurance.”
Mortensen says she got constant support as well from Steve Silver, the man in the tricky role of Julianna’s husband. The tormented woman berates her spouse fiercely, and sometimes he pushes back. But he never breaks, never abandons this woman he loves and who is inexorably drifting from rational contact with him.
“Steve is a lovely human being, a generous, caring, patient person,” says Mortensen. “He’s also very enthusiastic about his craft. As I started to put Julianna on, I could feel myself becoming impatient with how nice he was. And I found myself spilling some of Julianna’s anger onto Steve off-stage. At one point, I actually went up to him and apologized. It’s so not like me to be like this with another actor. But that’s Julianna. She’s like an awful teenager, and her husband has to be the grown-up who accepts that she’s sick and that she doesn’t know what she’s saying.”
- Review of ‘The Other Place’ at Profiles Theatre: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Dale T. Mortensen, labor economist and Nobel winner, remembered: Read about him here
More Role Playing Interviews:
- Siobhan Redmond sees re-formed Lady Macbeth as valiant queen in ‘Dunsinane’
- Eileen Niccolai harnessed a storm of emotions to create spark in Williams’ Serafina
- Steve Haggard, aiming at reality, strikes raw core of grieving man in ‘Martyr’
- Shannon Cochran found partners aplenty in sardonic, twice-told ‘Dance of Death’
- Natalie West scaled back comedy to nail laughs, touch hearts in ‘Mud Blue Sky’
- Dave Belden, actor and violinist, adjusted pitch for ‘Charles Ives Take Me Home’
- Joseph Wiens starts at full throttle to convey alienation of ‘Look Back in Anger’
- Shane Kenyon touches charm and hurt of lovable loser in Steep’s ‘If There Is’
- Ramón Camín sees working class values in Arthur Miller’s tragic Eddie Carbone
- Hillary Marren’s charming, rapping witch in ‘Woods’ shapred by hard work, free play
- Mary Beth Fisher embraces both hope, despair of social worker in ‘Luna Gale’
- Brad Armacost switched brothers to do blind, boozy character in ‘The Seafarer’
- Karen Woditsch shapes vowels, flings arms to perfect portrait of Julia Child
- Ora Jones had to find her way into Katherine’s frayed world in ‘Henry VIII’
- Kareem Bandealy tapped roots, hit books for form warlord in ‘Blood and Gifts’
- Eva Barr explored two personas of Alzheimer’s victim to find center of ‘Alice’
- Darrell W. Cox sees theater’s core in closed-off teacher of ‘Burning Boy’
- Chaon Cross turned Court stage into a romper room finding answers in ‘Proof’
- Dion Johnstone turned outsider Antony to bloody purpose in ‘Julius Caesar’
- Noir films gave Justine Turner model for shadowy dame in ‘Dreadful Night’
- Anish Jethmalani plumbs agony of good man battling demons in ‘Bengal Tiger’
- Gary Perez channels his Harlem youth as quiet, unflinching Julio in ‘The Hat’
- Kamal Angelo Bolden sharpened dramatic combinations to play ‘The Opponent’
- In wheelchair, Jacqueline Grandt explores paralysis of neglect in ‘Broken Glass’
- James Ridge thrives in cold skin of Shakespeare’s smiling serpent, Richard III
- Stephen Ouimette brews an Irish tippler with a glassful of illusions in ‘Iceman’
- Ian Barford revels in the wiliness of an ambivalent rebel in Doctorow’s ‘March’
- Chuck Spencer flashes a badge of moral courage in Arthur Miller’s ‘The Price’
- Rebecca Finnegan finds lyrical heart of a lonely woman in ‘A Catered Affair’
- Bill Norris pulled the seedy bum in ‘The Caretaker” from a place within himself
- Diane D’Aquila creates a twice regal portrait as lover and monarch in ‘Elizabeth Rex’
- Dean Evans, in clown costume, enters the darkness of ‘Burning Bluebeard’
- Dan Waller wields a personal brush as uneasy genius of ‘Pitmen Painters’
- City boy Michael Stegall ropes wild cowboy in Raven Theatre’s ‘Bus Stop‘
- Brent Barrett is glad he joined ‘Follies’ as that womanizing, empty cad Ben
- Sadieh Rifai zips among seven characters in one-woman “Amish Project”
- Kirsten Fitzgerald inhabits sorrow, surfs the laughs in ‘Clybourne Park’
- Janet Ulrich Brooks portrays a Russian arms negotiator in ‘A Walk in the Woods’