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Role Playing: Lia D. Mortensen’s intense portrait of a mentally failing scientist holds mirror to life

Submitted by on Mar 29, 2015 – 9:41 pm

Lia D. Mortensen plays a mentally ill biophysicist in Sharr White's 'The Other Place' at Profiles Theatre.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.

Defiant and anxious, Julianna (Lia D. Mortensen) is not an easy patient for Dr. Teller (Nina O'Keefe).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.

Julianna (Lia D. Mortensen) makes a frantic call to her estranged daughter Laurel as husband Ian (Steve Silver) watches with concern. (Michael Brosilow)“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.

Julianna (Lia D. Mortensen) pitches a group of neurologists on the new medicine she has developed. (Michael Brosilow)“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.

Getting through to Julianna (Lia D. Mortensen) is a constant challenge for husband Ian (Steve Silver). (Michael Brosilow)“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.”

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