In the Next Room or the vibrator play
In fact, electricity figures prominently in Ms. Ruhl's clever story of sexual repression and liberation. Set in an upstate New York spa town in the late 19th century, the play's action takes place on the cusp of modernity and the Industrial Revolution, a movement that was driven to a great degree by Thomas Alva Edison's inventions of a variety of electronic appliances. Though the play's characters are fascinated with these gadgets (one enjoys turning a newfangled electric light on and off via a switch), they are unaware that their Victorian ways, including the sexual mores that were considered to be an integral part of polite society, will soon begin to shift radically.
Dr. Givings (Francis Gercke) is a physician who specializes in treating "hysteria." Found mainly in women, the symptoms include lethargy, sensitivity to light, and fits of depression. Over time, Givings has discovered that patients who are stimulated with an electric vibrator experience recovery from their symptoms over the course of a number of treatments. Givings attributes his success to electricity coursing its way through the body, and he has a number of satisfied patients who visit his home office, including Sabrina Daldry (Willow Geer) accompanied by her husband (Dale Morris), and an artist named Leo Irving (Brian Mackey).
Meanwhile, Catherine Givings (Aubrey Saverino), Dr. Givings' wife, has her hands full with raising a new baby while having been blessed with only a limited supply of breast milk. At Mrs. Daldry's suggestion, Mrs. Givings engages Elizabeth (Monique Gaffney) as a wet nurse for her baby. The baby begins to prosper, but Mrs. Givings is left feeling alone and unappreciated. She takes to spying on her husband's treatments, as she sees patients emerging from them happy and satisfied.
Of course, the audience is in on the gag. Electricity itself has nothing to do with the effectiveness of the treatment, even though the patients often have electric sensations in their bodies. The stimulation of the vibrator produces orgasm, which in turn promotes the self-satisfied feelings. Dr. Givings misses this point altogether, though his nurse, Annie (Lisel Gorell-Getz), appears to have figured it out and is perfectly happy to use this knowledge for her own devices. The reason Dr. Givings has missed the connection to orgasm is that he doesn't have any experience with it, having mostly ignored his wife in favor of his work.
Director Sam Woodhouse, who previously staged Ms. Ruhl's The Clean House at the REP, has coached his men to be loud and egocentric, though in somewhat different ways. Mr. Gercke is consumed with science and ideas, Mr. Morris with commerce and seduction, and Mr. Mackey with art. Ms. Saverino and Ms. Geer (the daughter of Ellen Geer and granddaughter of Will Geer) weave in and out of hysteria, while Ms. Gaffney and Ms. Gorell-Getz, as the most subservient of the characters are also the most grounded and emotionally stable. Set designer Victoria Petrovich and costume designer Jennifer Brawn Gittings, both of whom also worked on the REP's The Clean House, make significant contributions to the success of the production. Ms. Petrovich's "next room" house uses the large Lyceum stage well and provides plenty of space to execute the sight gags that the play requires without looking empty. Characters frequently undress throughout the play (there is also a nude scene that is important to the plot), and Ms. Gittings' costumes are constant reminders of how the sorts of restraints that modesty dictated hampered the movement of both body and soul.
In the Next Room or the vibrator play is at once a hilarious comedy of manners, a thoughtful play of ideas, and a sexy and titillating entertainment. The REP's production is its most accomplished in recent memory and deserves to be at the top of any theatre-lover's "must see" list.
San Diego REPertory Theatre presents In the Next Room or the vibrator play, by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Sam Woodhouse with set design by Victoria Petrovich, lighting design by Jennifer Setlow, costume design by Jennifer Brawn Gittings, music composition by Kevin Anthenill, sound design by Tom Jones, dramaturgy by Dawn Moore, and wig design by Peter Herman. The assistant director was Jessica Byrd, and stage management was by Meghan Bourdeau and Chandra Anthenill.
Featuring Francis Gercke (Dr. Givings), Aubrey Saverino (Catherine Givings), Willow Geer (Sabrina Daldry), Lisel Gorell-Getz (Annie), Brian Mackey (Leo Irving), Monique Gaffney (Elizabeth), and Dale Morris (Mr. Daldry).
Performs through April 17 at the Lyceum Stage in San Diego's downtown Horton Plaza shopping center. Tickets ($29 to $47 with discounts for students, seniors, and military) are available by calling the box office at (619) 544-1000 or by visiting the San Diego REP website.
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