PITTSFIELD -- A young girl in a yellow bikini slips into a lecture room and takes a seat amid doctors at a medical convention in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.
The mere sight of her is enough to distract the lecturer -- a bright, hardworking neurologist named Juliana Smithton who has developed and holds the patent on an exciting new protein therapy that has the potential of becoming a powerful weapon in the fight against dementia and Alzheimer's.
But as Sharr White's "The Other Place" progresses, that girl in the yellow bikini proves more than a distraction.
The play -- which has been in previews since Wednesday at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage where it officially opens Sunday afternoon as the first production of BSC's 20th anniversary season -- is a delicately charted journey through the mind of a smart. articulate, accomplished woman who finds her ordered life inexplicably falling apart. Her oncologist husband, Ian, is preparing to divorce her. She is trying to reach out to an estranged daughter -- now married and with a family -- she hasn't seen since she ran away from home as a teenager to be with her older lover-now-husband.
As events unfold, the only thing that is clear, until the play's resolution in Juliana's family home on Cape Cod, is that nothing is what it appears to be. Truth, it turns out, has many guises.
"The role is so demanding, her complexity, the transitions," said Marg Helgenberger, who is playing Juliana under the direction of BSC artistic associate Christopher Innvar, during a pre-rehearsal interview over coffee not far from the St. Germain Stage in downtown Pittsfield.
"Juliana is extremely intelligent, funny, heroic. She knows what she's up against; a woman in a man's world, among doctors. She's a tough lady, somewhat impatient. The challenge of bringing her to life is something I couldn't refuse."
It helped that the timing was right. Known to most audiences from her continuing role as Catherine Willows on the CBS series "C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation" and, years earlier, her Emmy Award-winning role as the hard-bitten prostitute K.C. in the ABC series "China Beach," Helgenberger has been looking for an opportunity to get on the stage. At the time of the interview, her latest television series, "Intelligence," also on CBS, had just wrapped its first season and she was waiting to hear if the show has been picked up for next season. (CBS has since announced the series has been scrapped.)
"I've done a few staged readings but never a fully mounted production," Helgenberger said. "There was very little, if anything, I could do during our two-month hiatus on ‘C.S.I.' "
She also didn't want to accept any jobs that would take her far from her son.
Moreover, she said, "it's different when you're so well known from television. It's a different set of chops."
In "The Other Place," those chops are in the service of assembling a puzzle -- determining the truth of Juliana's life; discovering who, in fact, she is.
It's a challenge, Innvar acknowledges' "juggling these mysteries in the play, the mysteries of these relationships" with her husband, her daughter, a medical professional Juliana has been brought to see by her husband.
"The play jumps back and forth in time," Innvar said. "Its structure reflects her state of mind as it assembles this perfect little puzzle.
"I think it's a play about loss, loss of one's self, marriage, one;s life -- loss and being found. I think it's only by being lost can Juliana be found again."
"All the water imagery in the play," Helgenberger said. "That's life. To me, Juliana has a rebirth."
White will be in town to discuss his process in crafting "The Other Place" in a free talk 4 p.m Saturday at the St. Germain Stage in the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden St. Innvar will moderate the discussion.
"There is a lot of humor in the play," Helgenberger said. That humor, Innvar added, comes from the intelligence and wit of its characters -- Juliana and Ian, in particular.
After Sunday's opening, Innvar returns to New York to begin rehearsals for New York Shakespeare Festival's Central Park production of "King Lear," playing the Duke of Albany to Annette Bening's Goneril.
With "Intelligence" canceled, Helgenberger will head back to Los Angeles but she is open for more stage work. She's already had informal conversations, she says, with theater people in New York and Chicago and with Long Wharf artistic director Gordon Edelstein in New Haven, Conn.
"I've been fortunate enough to work in television most of my career and make a decent living at it, enough that I've never had to take a job to pay the mortgage," Helgenberger said. "My son is now 23 and on his own. So, I'm open."
She's just a touch apprehensive about this gig.
"What a relief to me that this is an ensemble piece," she says with a slight laugh.
"All I can do is the best job I can and get to the heart of the character."