BWW Review: Southwestern's IN THE NEXT ROOM OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY Creates Quite A Buzz
It's been a good year for Sarah Ruhl in Austin. First, En Route's production of DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE, now there's IN THE NEXT ROOM OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY at Southwestern University. Electricity has also gotten some notice this year, what with being both a figurative and literal driving force in IN THE NEXT ROOM and the Rudes REQUIEM FOR TESLA. In fact, until this season, I admit I didn't remember Edison had electrocuted an elephant in the early days of electricity, but here it is, mentioned several times in both plays while we 21st century play goers entertain going off the grid. Unless of course, the we is a woman and we need a vibrator induced orgasm to cure our hysteria. Therein lies the subject of Ruhl's award winning IN THE NEXT ROOM OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY.
The clinical and stiff Dr. Givings (Yep, that's his name, played by Austin Mueck) and his wife Catherine (Savannah Coleman) are experiencing a strained relationship. Not that the doctor would notice, as he's so consumed by his work. So consumed and clueless in fact, that he's entirely unaware that his invention and the "procedure" he performs on women is anything more than a medical one. Poor schmuck. His wife is a gregarious little creature who is experiencing a sense of her own impotence, as it were, as she's unable to produce milk for the couple's new born. They learn later from Mr. Daldry (Mrs. Daldry's husband, played by Zane McDurham) that the Daldry's maid Elizabeth (Diedre Ehule) a black woman who has recently lost her child, can serve them as a wet nurse. When Mr. Daldry brings his wife Sabrina (Ashley Howell) to receive treatment for her anxiety, depression, general unhappiness and malaise, we discover the patriarchy is clearly in charge. Daldry and Dr. Givings speak mostly as though Mrs. Daldry were a child, much as Dr. Givings speaks to his own wife. As Mrs. Daldry's weekly treatments progress, she grows fond of Dr. Giving's nurse Annie (who, incidentally, can provide treatment as well as, if not better than Dr. Givings) and comes to share a kind of friendly intimacy with Mrs. Givings. The artist Leo arrives in Act II and Dr. Givings discovers that a male variation on his new invention works quite nicely as well. Leo Falls for Elizabeth, Mrs. Givings momentarily falls for Leo, Annie falls for Mrs. Daldry, Mr. Daldry falls for Mrs. Givings, and Dr. Givings finally, by his wife's extraordinary efforts to reach out to him through his infallibly scientific demeanor, comes to his human senses and notices his own wife.
IN THE NEXT ROOM is clever, smart and satisfying. It's a sex comedy for adults that simultaneously generates pathos and humor. Set in the early 20th century, on the verge of such a boundless future for women, the play addresses the physical and emotional repression of women at a variety of angles and points out just how much the desire for intimacy and connection has changed - or not, in the last 100 years. It's quite a strong play to take on and produce successfully. Southwestern University is especially courageous, doing such a show in the heart of Williamson County.
Production values are high under Kristen Rogers direction and includes a beautiful (if sparsely dressed) set by Leslie Turner, ridiculously stunning costumes are provided by Jonathan Knipsher, and Kate Hazard lights the stage perfectly, if not elaborately. (Yep, the lights flicker when the vibrator is on...) While it was all very beautiful on the thrust stage in the roomy Jones theatre, I couldn't help but wonder how the play might be received if the back wall were moved a bit further up to present us with an even more intimate experience. It in no way detracts from the production, but given the action of the play, might have provided us more to consider about our own comfort with the subject.
The actors here do their work as well directed. The thrust stage was no problem for Rogers, as her blocking was quite picturesque. These characters were played rather tightly wound and in a show such as this, it seemed to conceal the lurking passion underneath it a little too well. That said, William Soller as Leo and Ashley Howell as Mrs. Daldry successfully inhabited characters who have orgasms that are neither too funny nor pornographic. They're just like Mama Bear's things in the Three Little Bears - they're just right. That's a feat. Soller is a breath of fresh air, and while most of the cast appeared as though they were working on their characters from the outside in, Soller gives us a passionate Leo from the inside out, the polar opposite of his uptight doctor. Additionally, as a quiet presence in the doctor's office, Olivia Wise's understated and gentle Annie almost floats everywhere she goes.
It's a bold and courageous and even an educational thing to produce IN THE NEXT ROOM OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY. Southwestern has nothing to be ashamed of with this production.
IN THE NEXT ROOM OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY
By Sarah Ruhl
Southwestern University - Georgetown
Sarofim School of Fine Arts
Jesse H. and Mary Gibbs Jones Theatre
Friday 7:30 pm
3:00 pm Saturday/Sunday
Running time: 2 hours fifteen minutes with a fifteen minute intermission