Regional Reviews by Nancy Grossman

In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)
SpeakEasy Stage Company

Marianna Bassham and Anne Gottlieb
SpeakEasy Stage Company's 20th anniversary season starts with a jolt of electrical energy with the Boston premiere of Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), directed by Scott Edmiston. Both a Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony nominee for Best Play in 2010, Ruhl's play is set in the 1880s and based on historical fact that, at the dawn of the age of electricity, doctors used electrical vibrators to treat hysteria in women. Within that frame, Ruhl paints a portrait of the well-intended Dr. Givings, the patients he treats with new technology in his operating theatre, and his repressed relationship with his sheltered wife.

One of the many virtues of the vibrator play is its cast of complex characters who are required to grow as the plot progresses. Givings is first and foremost a scientist, as he is wont to repeat when other explanations fail him. His wife Catherine is mercurial and prone to loneliness, an unfortunate pairing of traits considering her husband's reserve. While his passion is focused on his work, she must content herself with caring for their new baby even though she is forced to share those duties with a wet nurse. This raises core identity issues for Catherine as she struggles to cope with her perceived inadequacy as a mother and a woman. Ruhl brilliantly allows her the opportunity to discuss her concerns with Mrs. Daldry, a patient she befriends, and Elizabeth, the nurse, adding texture to their relationship the way women do in real life.

Mr. Daldry brings his wife to Dr. Givings for treatment of her sadness, anxiety and pervasive malaise. When we meet her, Mrs. Daldry is attired in black from head to toe, worried about ghosts lurking in the curtains of her home, and seems quite mad. Her husband is at the end of his rope and feels cheated out of her spousal companionship. The doctor is confident that he and his assistant/midwife Annie will help Mrs. Daldry by employing the electric vibrator to release the pent-up emotion in the womb which is causing her hysteria. Daily visits are prescribed, and the transformation is miraculous. When Catherine observes the new and improved Mrs. Daldry, she becomes curious about what goes on in the next room, but the doctor refuses to show her, locking the door to his office. While he is off at his club, with the help of a hat pin, the two women take matters into their own hands.

The next patient is Leo Irving, an artist who cannot work since being jilted by a beautiful Italian lover. Although using the technique on men was rare, Givings opts to try and reopen Leo's eyes, enabling him to get back in touch with his passion for painting. Catherine develops a passion for the revitalized Leo as she watches him paint a portrait of Elizabeth and the baby, while the artist falls for his subject. He tells Catherine that he can't love her because her "soul is locked inside." Her loneliness and feelings of inadequacy come to a head and she takes a more drastic approach to get what she needs.

As might be expected, In the Next Room is a comedy, or at least presents as such in the first act. Ruhl's dialogue and the seemingly quaint circumstances that she creates for her characters provide a rich vein of humor for a modern audience. However, it is the physical talents of Marianna Bassham as Mrs. Daldry, diagnosed with hysteria by Dr. Givings (Derry Woodhouse), and Anne Gottlieb as the doctor's wife, who truly move the audience to hysterics, as it were, when they take their turns on the table for treatment. Step aside, Meg Ryan.

The second act has fewer laughs, but reflects more of the heartbreaking truth of the lifestyles of the Victorian era, when the men were uptight and the women were either sad or innocent, not knowing enough to realize that they were missing out on something. Of course, Catherine is unaware of the things that we know about the era in which she is living. Yet she understands on a cellular level that her husband is unwilling to do for her what he excitedly does for his patients. Ruhl slowly peels away Catherine's layers as if she were an onion, but it is not until Catherine exhibits uncharacteristic behavior and frantically verbalizes her dissatisfaction that Givings must finally take notice, forced to step outside of his insular comfort zone and meet her halfway in order to save their marriage.

Ruhl makes it clear that the men suffered in their own way during this repressed era. Leo's problem is dramatically illustrated, but Mr. Daldry and Dr. Givings are victims, as well. Their responses to their emotions are markedly different as one chooses to commit an action, while the other takes the path of least resistance. Elizabeth and her offstage husband appear to be the only well-adjusted characters, unafraid of succumbing to their desires in a healthy way and trusting in their higher power to determine right from wrong. As a single woman, Annie's choices are limited and her suffering takes a path of its own. Just like everyone else in the play, she is searching for a little love and tenderness, but her journey leads her to great sadness.

Edmiston draws deeply felt performances from his cast across the board. Woodhouse makes us feel for Givings despite his bloodless rigidity and really gets inside the doctor's discomfort in the final scenes. Bassham transforms from basso zombie to lilting Energizer bunny, abandoning her terrified stare in favor of vibrant smiles, while Gottlieb's Catherine gradually has the veil lifted from her eyes and adopts an earthy, sensitive persona. Lindsey McWhorter as Elizabeth displays quiet dignity and restrained desperation, not unlike what Dennis Trainor, Jr. shows as the frustrated husband trying to be patient. She projects an inner calm, whereas he seethes and seems ready to implode. Looking pleasant and blending into the background until Annie's moment of decision arrives, Frances Idlebrook is painfully good in the scene where she takes a monumental risk and throws snake eyes.

I enjoyed the structure of the plot, which often has action occurring simultaneously in side-by-side rooms. While Givings and Annie are providing treatment in the operating theatre stage right, Catherine may be entertaining in the richly appointed drawing room stage left. Scenic Designer Susan Zeeman Rogers capably meets the challenge of dividing the set with a door in a partial wall that runs perpendicular to the audience. She and Lighting Designer Karen Perlow also focus our attention on the characters' debate about the pros and cons of new, electric lights versus warm candlelight by placing numerous flickering sconces on the back wall. Gail Astrid Buckley's costumes are meticulously designed and genuine when it comes time to undo buttons or circumvent the plentiful layers of fabric of a woman's undergarment.

In the Next Room is a little like two plays in one, with the hilarity of the first act followed by greater depth and character development after intermission. However, Ruhl stays true to the story and her characters, leading each of them through an arc that befits their place in society and the times. Although their circumstances may seem hard to imagine in our post-sexual revolution, anything goes culture, these people, their relationships and their emotional lives resonate with us. We know a lot more now, but we're not necessarily that much wiser.

In the Next Room (or the vibrator play). Written by Sarah Ruhl, Directed by Scott Edmiston; Susan Zeeman Rogers, Scenic Design; Gail Astrid Buckley, Costume Design; Karen Perlow, Lighting Design; Dewey Dellay, Original Music/Sound Design; Amy Weissenstein, Production Stage Manager. Performances through October 16 at SpeakEasy Stage Company Box Office 617-933-8600 or

Cast: Marianna Bassham, Craig Wesley Divino, Anne Gottlieb, Frances Idlebrook, Lindsey McWhorter, Dennis Trainor, Jr., Derry Woodhouse

Photo: Stratton McCrady

- Nancy Grossman

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