Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
In the Next Room or the vibrator play
Also see Susan's review of Chess
When Sarah Ruhl's newest play premiered in New York, the title appeared on the marquee as In the Next Room, or the vibrator play. Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has decided to change the emphasis in its billing, giving the most prominence and largest type to the word "vibrator."
Woolly Mammoth and director Aaron Posner have created a sparkling production of Ruhl's antic look back at a time not that long ago, when the idea that "proper" women could feel sexual pleasure was so foreign as to be incomprehensible. The play itself bogs down a bit in the second act, but as a whole it's both hilarious and enlightening.
The time is the 1880s, when electric light is just beginning to surpass candles and gaslight in the home. Dr. Givings (Eric Hissom), a specialist in "women's complaints," has designed a "therapeutic electric massage" device that resolves symptoms of "hysteria"listlessness, depression, inability to concentrate, anxietyand sends dissatisfied women home in glowing good health. (The person being treated may be moaning and groaning as she reaches her "paroxysm," but the doctor doesn't consider the treatment any more sexual in nature than, say, using a stethoscope would be.)
As Dr. Givings provides treatment in his home office, the "next room" of the title, his wife Catherine (Katie deBuys) is coping with her own form of isolation. She worries that she is unable to meet the needs of her newborn daughter, hiring an African-American servant (Jessica Frances Dukes) as a wet nurse. Gradually, through friendships with the nurse and an enthusiastic patient (Kimberly Gilbert in the showiest role), she becomes more comfortable with the kind of electricity produced by the body.
Posner has brought together an ensemble that hits every note, from the kaleidoscopic comic scenes depicted by Gilbert to the stodgy cluelessness of her husband (James Konicek), the emotional outbursts of a rare male patient (Cody Nickell), and the unflappability of the doctor's assistant (Sarah Marshall) who has secrets of her own.
Daniel Conway has designed an airy set that suggests an operating theater, complete with seats above the stage, and Helen Q. Huang's costumes show how constricting, impractical dresses can still be beautiful. Properties manager Jennifer Sheetz deserves special credit for her creation of two of the title devices: the theater also has a display of historic vibrators in the lobby.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company