IN THE NEXT ROOM or the vibrator play

by Sarah Ruhl

In The Next Room or the vibrator play by sarah ruhl
In The Next Room or the vibrator play

Directed by Sandy Shinner

At Victory Gardens Theatre, Chicago

All the right vibes: electricity fuses marriage and intimacy

Highly recommended! Now you needn’t to read all the way to the bottom of this review to learn the assessment of this terrific Chicago Première of In the Next  Room or the vibrator play.

Who would ever think that such a topic could be molded into a drama? With wit, humor, and compassion, Sarah Ruhl takes historical fact – the medical use of vibrators to calm female patients suffering from what was diagnosed as hysteria in the late 19th century – and innovatively weaves it into a tale of love on many levels, including but certainly not limited to the physical.

In The Next Room or the vibrator play

Dr. Givings, played with handsome, cold assurance by Mark. L. Montgomery, treats unhappy women with this new electric device. Thomas Edison and the new science capture his pioneering imagination, impelling him to conduct his own experiments. He is delighted with the results — when his machine stimulates the women into happy paroxysms (aka orgasms). Sensitive to science, he is insensitive to the human drama surrounding him.

In The Next Room or the vibrator play

We meet the good doctor’s capable nurse, Annie (Patricia Kane), his wife Catherine (Kate Fry) and two patients. The first, Polly Noonan, plays uptight, restrained, girlish, unhappy Sabrina Daldry, dominated by insecurities: she fears light, and being touched, and is totally distressed.  Sabrina is accompanied by her unsympathetic husband played solidly by Lawrence Grimes. The second patient is somewhat of a surprise, appearing at the opening of Act II.  Vivid, mercurial Leo Irving (Joel Gross) is a stressed male, an artist blocked creatively from his work and desperate for release. One more character rounds out the fine cast – Elizabeth (Tamberla Perry), hired by the Givings to wet nurse their infant.

In The Next Room or the vibrator play

While the doctor is able to stimulate his patients, he fails to do so for his wife. And the story becomes a tale of love on many levels: love for one’s mate, love for ones work, love for those of the same sex, and love of ones child. While the new gadget provides impetus and breaks new ground (so to speak), it is merely a means to an end. For this reason, the play has universal appeal, forever timely in its exploration of emotional as well as physical intimacy.

In The Next Room or the vibrator play

That is not to say that it does not provide highly comedic moments. Who would ever expect to see a series of vibrator “treatments” depicted on stage – albeit quite discretely, under the doctor’s draped sheet. Also to the designer’s credit and for historical accuracy, the vibrator itself bears no resemblance to current sex toys. Rather it appears to be a round rotating pad connected to a large cabinet on wheels.

In The Next Room or the vibrator play

What results from the physical vibrations resonates far beyond medical treatment to trigger sympathy and understanding between men and women. This encompasses not only female sexuality but also female fertility.  Not only is Catherine lonely and unfilled sexually, she is also unable to produce sufficient milk to feed her infant daughter. She is reluctant to hire a wet nurse, distressed that this woman has recently lost her own child, worried that her baby and the woman will bond and exclude her from the mother/daughter equation. Interestingly, 37-year-old Ruhl wrote the play while nursing her own newborn.

In The Next Room or the vibrator play

In recent interviews, both Ruhl and director Sandy Shinner have stressed the underlying theme of having to  pay for essential intimacies — what should come naturally – marital sexual pleasure and the ability to nurse one’s own child.

In The Next Room or the vibrator play

Sometimes tender, sometimes almost farcical, the play really belongs to the outspoken, brave, curious Catherine.  She listens at the door of her husband’s examining room, wonders at the rapturous noises emanating forth, and takes matters into her own hands, especially in a delightful scene with Mrs. Daldry when they mutually explore the new gadget without benefit of the doctor.  Fry is extraordinary in the role, capturing diffidence joined by determination to learn what is going on and how she, herself, may benefit. Her every facial expression and gesture reveal the inner woman.

It is no wonder that in the final scene between Catherine and her husband, she comes out on top – literally as well as figuratively!

The Next Room was deservedly nominated for three Tony Awards in 2010: for Best Play, Best Featured Actress in a Play and Best Costume Design.

Once again – Highly Recommended  — with one caveat: not for children.

Beverly Friend

friend@oakton.edu

For more info checkout the In The Next Room page on www.theatreinchicago.com

Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. 773-871-3000, www.victorgardens.org. Tickets are $20-$50. Runs Tuesdays, through Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Wednesdays at 2 pm, Saturdays at 4 pm, Sundays at 3 pm. Running time two and a half hours (including 15 minute intermission), through October 9. Valet parking is available for $11 for all performances except weekday matinees.