In the Broadway play The Other Place actress Laurie Metcalf ("Jackie" on the TV show "Roseanne") plays a scientist suffering from the dementia she studies. Playwright Sharr White discusses the play and the challenge of presenting complicated science on a theater stage.
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FLORA LICHTMAN, HOST:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Flora Lichtman filling in for Ira today. Imagine this. You're a brilliant scientist, a biophysicist studying the causes of dementia. And one day, mid-Power Point, you can't recall what you're supposed to say when the next slide comes up. Eventually you learn that the disease you're studying is now the disease you have.
That's the plot of the Broadway play called "The Other Place." It stars Laurie Metcalf as the scientist - and you may remember her as Jackie on the TV show "Roseanne." And joining me now is the man who wrote the play, Sharr White. Thanks for coming into our studio today.
SHARR WHITE: Thanks for having me, Flora.
LICHTMAN: This is an intense play.
WHITE: Yes. Absolutely.
LICHTMAN: Would you agree? Tell us a little bit more about it.
WHITE: Well, I mean, it's really - I do always say that it's a play about the smartest woman on Earth who discovers that actually nothing she knows is true. And it's told really, really, especially from the beginning, really from the first person. She is really the ultimate narrator - sorry, the ultimate unreliable narrator. So as things start to go wrong with her, because it's told so - it's told so closely from her perspective, as she starts to break down, we sort of really experience it along with her.
LICHTMAN: Right. And she is very credible. And I wondered if part of that is because she's a scientist.
WHITE: Well, absolutely. And there is a bit of trickery in there. I mean, the real key in making the play work is establishing that she is indeed the smartest person on Earth. So it opens with - it essentially opens with her giving this - yeah, this medical lecture to other doctors. And you establish really - I think it does establish really quickly that no one can really top her in terms of her intelligence.
LICHTMAN: Right. I mean, you write, actually - I came across an article you wrote, and you say a particular feature of the very smart people in my life is that they think their sheer intelligence can protect them from all manner of harm. And it seems like this is echoed in this play.
WHITE: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean I think in a lot of ways there's something very Greek about the play. I think it definitely has undertones of Oedipus. You know, here is this reigning king whose life is really taken quite suddenly.
LICHTMAN: By the dementia.
WHITE: Yeah. Yeah, that's right. Yeah.
LICHTMAN: How did the research go for this play?
WHITE: The research was really intense for me. I mean, I really - I do a lot of research for plays. I love the research. And because - because - I mean, the research around dementia is very fascinating and especially around protein (unintelligible) disorders such as Alzheimer's and early onset Alzheimer's.
My father is a scientist. He actually works with protein structures. So it was a really great thing for me to be able to delve more into the processes that he works with. So you know, so I really just - I think you can go as deeply as you want to into any research but especially with scientific - researching any sort of scientific issue, you can delve very deeply into it.
LICHTMAN: How did you decide when enough was enough? I mean, it seems like you could've made this - you could have even added more had you wanted to.
WHITE: Well, yeah. And there was a tremendous amount when we first began the process. And really a lot of the rehearsal process and putting the script together was about peeling the non-necessary science out. There was a night when I was at home on the couch and I was doing all this research - and I said, you know, and part of the storyline is that she has developed a very plausible drug that can interrupt, you know, the processes of Alzheimer's.
And I was sitting there on my couching - and I had to say to myself, you know what? Actually, you don't have to figure out how to cure Alzheimer's. You just have to figure out...
WHITE: You know? How to work this into the story. You know?
LICHTMAN: Well, that's good.
WHITE: Yeah. Yeah.
LICHTMAN: It could've taken a long time to write.
WHITE: Yeah. Some playwright, you know, trying to, trying to, you know, solve the Alzheimer's problem. So, yeah.
LICHTMAN: But it can pull you in, right? You know, these mysteries of science.
WHITE: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. And, I mean, I sort of, especially from a layman's standpoint, you read these sentences that really should make sense but they kind of don't make sense, so you start looking up all the words that you don't really understand and looking up all of the processes that you don't understand. You get really excited because you start understanding them.
And then the trap is for somebody working, you know, in theater building a story is that, you know, at the end of the day you have to make that something - you have to make it something dynamic and relatable to the audience. So, I mean, yeah. At the end of the day, really, I wound up throwing almost all of it out.
LICHTMAN: Well, what about the drug? Did you invent that?
WHITE: Well, I don't know. I think I did.
LICHTMAN: What's it called?
WHITE: It's called Serna(ph) Seven. Actually, that's my mythical - that's the name of the molecule she invented, but the drug itself is called Identimel(ph). So I did sort of hypothetically say, OK, what if there is a small interfering RNA strand that can actually, you know - and I did do research on this. There are these small interfering RNA strands that can cleave mutant genes.
So I thought, well, that's got to be a part of it, you know, and it's got to - well, it's got to be made of, I don't know, you know, beta amino acids to, you know, better incorporate with the body's immune system and all this stuff. So I made up this sort of theory behind this drug, and of course, you know, I threw all that out too.
LICHTMAN: What about research into the symptoms of dementia? I think Laurie Metcalf just does a phenomenal job sort of playing between this very credible, put-together high-powered scientist and someone who is clearly having lapses and showing these signs of a brain disease or neurological disease. Did you research dementia symptoms? Are those written in? Did she take them and run with them? How did that work?
WHITE: You know, there was a lot of collaboration in that. I mean, she just does an absolutely brilliant job of getting so specific with all of the behaviors in there. And especially in the first sort of process when the play was first produced at MCC, she was watching a lot of videos and really picking up on a lot of symptoms from people.
And I certainly wrote a lot of that in there. I mean, I think the stage at which this is beginning to express for this character is a very early stage in which I think there's a lot of commonality between dementias often, when they begin to express. And so a lot of it was from some experience that I've had with - actually with mental illness, through conversations with some friends of mine who - one friend of mine's mother did pass of Alzheimer's.
And in the early stages of her disease she really did, he said, behave as if she had paranoid schizophrenia. So there was - so when I started really placing the story in the beginning of the expression there was - I really gave myself permission to - I think there was a lot of permission to be able to have her make up reality and have these really massive mood swings. And I think there are a lot of commonalities to the disease.
LICHTMAN: There's a lot of denial in this play, too.
LICHTMAN: And then not only on the part of the characters, even, but also the audience were sort of in denial about the symptoms, I think. Did you - is that something that you encountered when you were talking to friends or people who've had personal experiences, that...
WHITE: Yeah, absolutely, and with a lot of the reading that I've done, too. I mean, I think there's this - what's really interesting in the expression of most dementias is that a lot of times, people don't know how long they've been living with dementia. And especially the people around them don't know how long they've been living with dementia. It could be years. Then, you know, the earliest expressions are just - are very, you know, small forgetfulness, and then a lot of covering.
I mean, I worked with a lot of covering. Laurie's character Juliana has a habit of just keeping people off-balance, of keeping people on the defensive. And that was something that I put together as really, you know, she probably had been slipping for a long time. And that's the way that she maintains her aura of impenetrability, is by keeping everybody on the defensive.
LICHTMAN: Right. Keeping them guessing.
WHITE: Keeping them guessing - say, is there something wrong with me. You know, something's wrong with me. I am somehow inferior. And if Juliana can keep everybody feeling that way, then she'll never be - than her, you know, her mind will never be questioned.
LICHTMAN: How did you decide to include science at all in this? I mean, she didn't have to be a scientist, necessarily.
WHITE: No, no. She didn't. She didn't. I just - no, she didn't. I mean, I think it was really because - I think it was really because I really wanted to again sort of - well, I mean, I - before I decided to go into theater, I thought maybe I would be a biologist. And there's - my father's a scientist and my brother-in-law and my sisters both went to school for the sciences. And so I think it sort of runs in my family.
And I - I don't know. It was an interesting choice. I wanted to explore the science in it. I wanted to explore the biology in it. And I think the structure that I was looking for in the play, in a way, you know, was - I sort of - I wanted a structure that had a metaphor to it. And I think proteins, when they fold, when they misfold, which can fire off what begins to - the breakdown of the disease, I sort of felt that there was a metaphor in the protein misfolding in a way that the structure of the play is a very, you know, sort of densely folded structure. So I like that idea, too.
LICHTMAN: Any plans to take it on the road?
WHITE: Not yet.
LICHTMAN: How long is it running here in New York, and where can people see it?
WHITE: It's at Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on 47th Street. And it's just been extended until March 3rd - through March 3rd.
LICHTMAN: And in the 30 seconds we have left, tell us what you're working on now.
WHITE: It's a play that has nothing to do with science called "The Snow Geese." And I'm work-shopping that with MCC Theater, who first produced the other plays.
LICHTMAN: You think science will be in any of your future works?
WHITE: I don't know. I'd have to be a scientist in order to tell you.
LICHTMAN: Thank you, Sharr White, for coming in today.
WHITE: Thank you.
LICHTMAN: Sharr White's a playwright. His play "The Other Place" is running, as you just heard, now through March 3rd at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Stay with us. After the break, we have the Galileo of graphics, the da Vinci of data. You may know him as Edward Tufte. If you have questions for Dr. Tufte: 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. Stay with us.
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LICHTMAN: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.