Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Ruhl's play is a doozy. It is extremely smart, wickedly funny, and, by the time it wraps up, big-hearted as well. Set in in the late 1800s in a comfortably leafy section of Chicago, the play takes place completely in two adjoining rooms. One side is the therapy room where Dr. Givings treats his patients, primarily women, assisted by Annie, a midwife who is the doctor's clinical assistant. Alongside that room is the elegant parlor of Dr. Givings' home–his clinic being part of family residence–where his wife Catherine wonders longingly just what kind of treatment the women are undergoing at her husband's hand. In addition, Catherine is troubled by the fact that she is unable to produce milk to feed her newborn daughter, adding to her preexisting lack of confidence in her abilities as a mother.
And just what kind of ailment is the good doctor treating? The quasi-clinical diagnosis is "hysteria," which can take various forms in women, such as chronic exhaustion and lack of interest in things, or jitteriness and the inability to focus on anything, or deep levels of stress and anxiety. All of these maladies are healed by the doctor's application of a remarkable new invention, another of the many wonders of the burgeoning age of electricity being heralded by Thomas Edison. Dr. Givings is a fanatical supporter of the endless ways in which electricity is improving life.
Take, for example, his instrument. It is an oddly shaped object, connected to electric circuit, and inserted–quite chastely, beneath a pure white sheet–into the patient's nether region. It hums and twitches, and the patients experience sensations unlike anything they have ever known. At times, some assistance is needed by Annie, who is well versed in a manual application of the same treatment. In any case, in short order the patients report feeling so much better. When the doctor prescribes repeat treatment sessions, his patients appear quite willing to comply.
Catherine struggles with her own station in life, seeming very much a candidate for her husband's intervention, but he assures her that she is perfectly well. He will not discuss his treatments with her, brushing it off as scientific business that would bore her, but she is determined to know what is happening in the next room. Despite her husband's firm rule to keep patients and family apart, she befriends a patient, Mrs. Sabrina Daldry–and Mr. Daldry as well. The Daldrys refer a wet nurse, Elizabeth, to Dr. and Mrs. Givings–a godsend for the baby, but adding to Catherine's mounting unhappiness with herself and her life as she watches another woman meet the needs of her own child. Another patient, a romantic artist named Leo Irving, completes the dramatis personae.
Playwright Ruhl does a terrific job of spinning out humor in this situation, in particular making use of our twenty-first century perspective on women's sexuality and fluidity in gender roles to make the almost charming innocence of Dr. Givings and his world the butt of numerous jokes, always staying on the proper side of bad taste. What we come to realize, though, is that everyone except Dr. Givings is play-acting, even to themselves, but nonetheless aware of their needs and desires, both physical and emotional. That the mores of the era keep them from articulating those desires, let alone seeking to satisfy them, casts a dark shade over the humor, still hilarious, but prompting us to consider how our world today fares against that one.
Van has assembled a sparkling cast to inhabit these characters, starting with Emily Gunyou Halaas as Catherine Givings. Her rapid-fire line delivery and edgy energy is perfectly suited to express the discontents and desperation of this woman at odds with her times. Paul de Cordova is splendidly aloof as Dr. Givings, allowing himself to be euphoric in discussing the work of Thomas Edison, dryly clinical with his patients as he addresses their most intimate body parts, and at a loss for words when Catherine challenges his ability to love. When he finally admits to her, "I would like to love you but I don't know how," he seems trapped in boyhood, and like his wife, a victim of the chaste codes of his times.
It is a pleasure to see Adelin Phelps on stage again, as Sabrina, exuding girlish glee as she pairs up with Catherine to explore the doctor's lair, and Joel Liestman does fine work as the courtly Mr. Daldry. Laura Esping brings a patina of gentle sadness to her portrayal of Annie, whose lot in life keeps her in the background as the doctor does his work, and Erin Nicole Farste is luminous as the wet nurse who trades her own loss for the salvation of another's child. I have often admired James Rodriguez' performances, and he capably plays the part of Leo Irving, though he is burdened with an accent that has him come across as foppish where the part would seem to call for an earthier bearing.
Sarah Brandner designed exquisite set and atmospheric lighting, making every inch of Yellow Tree's small stage count, while Samantha Haddow's costumes beautifully capture the period, highlighting the bundling of women beneath multiple layers and complicated button hooks. As prop master, Julia Emory Cervera must have had fun coming up with Doctor Givings' devices and other objects that aid in bringing the show to life.
Yellow Tree, and in particular Austene Van, has delivered this outstanding play in a finely tuned production that strikes a winning balance between the comedy and the probing nature (no pun intended) of the work. I saw the play about ten years ago, and remember being impressed by it then, but not as thoroughly entertained as now. I know gas prices are up, but considering the quality of work being done up in Osseo, the drive is well worth the extra miles. This is one to catch if you possibly can.
In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, runs through June 26, 2022, at Yellow Tree Theatre, 320 5th Ave SE, Osseo MN. Tickets: $27.00 - $31.00; $3.00 per ticket discount for seniors (65+), students with valid ID, military personnel and groups of ten or more. $10.00 rush seats go on sale thirty minutes before the performance, pending availability. For information and tickets call 763-493-8733 or visit YellowTreeTheatre.com.
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl; Director: Austene Van; Set and Lighting Design: Sarah Brandner; Costume Designer: Samantha Haddow; Sound Designer: Jeff Bailey; Props Master: Julia Emery Cervera; Stage Manager: Sam Dickman; Technical Production Coordinator: Justin Hooper; Assistant to the Director: Lester Eugene Mayers
Cast: Paul de Cordova (Dr. Givings), Laura Esping (Annie), Erin Nicole Farste (Elizabeth), Emily Gunyou Halaas (Catherine Givings), Joel Liestman (Mr. Daldry), Adelin Phelps (Sabrina Daldry), Jamie Rodriguez (Leonard Irving).