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St. Louis by Robert Boyd

In The Next Room, or the Vibrator Play
Repertory Theater of St. Louis

To be an adult male in the audience for Sarah Ruhl's funny and poignant play In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play is very like being a man in the audience at The Vagina Monologues. You know there are resonances in the situations and in the dialog that your ears simply cannot hear, and you can judge from the physical reactions of the women around you that they are attuned to them in ways you cannot be. Their laughter is something far beyond a surface reaction to the play's genteel inanities of language or the whimsical prurience of its actions. That laughter is rather a deeply felt sign of shared sisterhood. The effect is very like being among women who are talking about their pregnancies. A man may not be deliberately excluded, but there is no conceivable way he can be fully part of the conversation. It is therefore all the more surprising that this production is directed—quite sympathetically, as nearly as I could tell—by the very talented Stuart Carden, whose direction of last season's Crime and Punishment drew great acclaim.

The burden of the playwright's lesson is the immorality of sexual repression, and the complex and unpredictable consequences of the struggle against it. Taking her text from historian Rachel Maines's book "The Technology of Orgasm," she presents a parable about a proper Victorian-era physician practicing in a "spa town outside of New York City" who has developed a treatment for "hysteria"—then understood to be a reasonable diagnosis for any number of symptom sets presented by the sort of women who would have been seen then as "ladies." Inasmuch as the doctor is convinced that "congestion of the womb" is at the root of such ailments, he has invented a device to introduce what he calls "paroxysms," powerful emotional and physical reactions which result in the release of the fluids which cause the congestion. His stirring success in treating the wife of a local businessman leaves him practically glowing with professional pride.

We would call them orgasms, of course, but would be to admit their carnal—as opposed to emotional—significance, and that—as Ruhl demonstrates in a telling scene involving the doctor, his coltish and altogether modern wife, and the device—would have been completely, unspeakably beyond the pale for the doctor.

It is this lovely paradox that drives the play's humor: he is reaching beneath the sheets on his examining table to place a non-phallic vibrator on the patient's private parts, standing rigid next to his nurse in a proper professional manner as the patient writhes and moans in ecstasy. And it is all, in a fashion that Masters and Johnson would later emulate, quite scientific.

The process by which the grateful patient and the doctor's wife and ultimately the nurse, with the assistance of a romantic artist and a worldly-wise wet nurse, subvert the doctor's scientific objectivity and begin at least making gestures in the general direction of breaking free is convoluted and quite theatrical, which is for the most part a good thing. This theatricality is echoed, not unpleasantly, in Mr. Carden's direction, which requires the actors to speak and move in deliberately stagy ways. The net effect is vaguely cartoonish, which has the advantage of keeping the focus on the theme rather than on the characters. Of course there are poignant moments; even a male can appreciate the delicate emotions involved in the bonding of the female characters, and even a so unenlightened male as the doctor, as the play's charming ending demonstrates, is not beyond redemption.

The cast is quite strong as an ensemble; Ron Bohmer, who has become a fixture on the Rep Stage, is stalwart as Doctor Givings, and Annie Purcell gives a spirited reading of his unconventional wife. David Christopher Wells is properly bohemian as the artist, Leo Irving; Krystel Lucas is elegant and touching as the wet nurse, Elizabeth; and Amy Landon is warmly human as the doctor's assistant. Emily Dorsch is both vulnerable and funny as the paroxsysmic patient, and Michael James Reed gives a brave reading of the thanklessly unsympathetic role of her husband.

The set, by Gianni Downs, is the most effective use I have seen of the idiosyncratic Studio Theater space. It is spectacularly realistic, in the mold of "verismo" opera, as are the impeccable period costumes by—who else—Dorothy Marshall Englis.

It isn't that men won't enjoy In the Next Room; it is a very appealing evening of theater. But this is a play fundamentally about the difference between the way men think about the world, including the world of sex, and the way women think about it, and it isn't giving away the ending to reveal that the women turn out to be right, in ways that may elude masculine logic but are—to judge from the delight with which the women around me responded to Ruhl's rhetoric—quintessentially feminine.

The show will run through March 27 in the Studio Theater space at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis. For ticket information call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.


-- Robert Boyd

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