Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play
Pear Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

April Culver
Photo by Caroline Clark
Your wife is sensitive to light, weeping at odd moments of the day, and complaining that green curtains give her headaches. What is a husband to do? Luckily, it is the late Victorian Age when electricity is all the rage. (Did you hear they electrocuted an elephant at Coney Island?) A local doctor claims he has a new machine that will cure a suffering woman's "hysteria" through "therapeutic electric massage." The resulting "paroxysm" (aka "orgasm" in 2017) leaves your wife smiling and surprisingly calm, and yourself relieved to have her pretty and glowing again. Never mind that the doctor's own wife is terribly lonely as she sits in the adjoining parlor to his office listening to pretty female patients' moans and half-screams, all the time wondering what is really going on behind her husband's locked doors. After all, "My husband is a good doctor, or so I have been told."

And thus begins Sarah Ruhl's Pulitzer Prize finalist In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, which received its much acclaimed world premiere in 2009 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Now on the much smaller, more intimate stage of Pear Theatre, the play opens once again in the Bay Area featuring a doctor's wife, Catherine Givings, who is antsy to experience life to its fullest—or at least to walk one time in the rain without an umbrella.

But she is feeling imprisoned within Victorian Age norms where wives have no money of their own, little authority over their own lives, and dresses with yards and yards of bustled material prohibiting any real freedom. On top of all that, she has a new baby girl, no milk coming from her own breast, and a husband who has decided she must employ a wet nurse—even one of African heritage. In the meantime, women like the very lovely Mrs. Daldry (who can even play beautifully on the parlor's piano, which Catherine of course cannot) come and go daily for their few minutes of medical treatment by some unseen machine that makes noises as strange and disturbing as the the patients' resulting groans, gasps, and even giggles (which Catherine can always hear from her on-the-edge perch on the parlor sofa).

The real strength of this production is in the excellent cast assembled. April Culver's Catherine is eager for any parlor-entering distraction from her much too confined and lonely life. She expresses a burning zeal for something new and exciting in rapid questions that do not wait for another's answers, with so many sentences coming out that breathing is almost forgotten. When frustrated or befuddled, Ms. Culver displays a deliciously funny, upside-down quarter moon with her mouth—just one of the many wonderful expressions that make watching her a delight.

Ellen Dunphy, as Catherine's newfound friend and patient of her husband's, Sabrina Daldry, also has a face that can speak volumes. Her Sabrina is especially "loud" through her silent stares as her husband (Troy Johnson) initially and meticulously describes her maladies to the doctor, who in turn describes the modern age wonder of the electric treatments she will receive. When the two women eventually venture into the doctor's office together (via a hatpin going into the locked door), they both almost burst the seams of their pantaloons in their excitement for a mutual adventure using the electric wonder inside, providing a capstone moment for both the fine actresses.

Brad Satterwhite is the very proper, formal, and mostly non-emotional Dr. Givings. Certainly he is nice enough, but he is also a man of only a few, efficiently selected words—except when talking with sudden excitement about the wonders of electricity. To his wife, he is one ready to give a quick peck in passing, along with a few details of exactly what she should do and not do. That the relief he is bringing to his patients might be in any way connected to something he could/should do for his own wife brings a look of shock and some disgust to his otherwise stoic, overly polite face.

He is well assisted in giving his electric massages by Annie, especially when the electricity sometimes goes out and her talented hands are the go-to substitute. As the loyal nurse, Stephanie Crowley is both detached and caring, quiet in the background and yet noticeably ever-present, minor in role but major in her overall impact.

Into this well laid out, not to be disturbed scene come two disrupters, for reasons to be revealed as the story progresses. Damaris Divito is the hired wet-nurse Elizabeth, with skin of a rich cocoa color and a soft, Southern accent that has a lyrical quality most natural and appealing. Ms. Divito wonderfully underplays the nervous Elizabeth who both wisely knows her place as a minority among these Victorian Caucasians but who also does not hesitate to stay within her own defined boundaries of what she will and will not tolerate or do.

Particularly enlivening the household is the second-act appearance of James Lewis as Leo Irving, a young man who too is diagnosed as suffering from "hysteria," (after all, "he is an artist," notes the doctor). His broad eyebrows dance across his forehead, carrying on their own conversations with his squinting eyes as his expressive face responds in scores of varying countenances. Once Leo has begun receiving his own treatments (doctor and patient must be seen to be believed), his renewed enthusiasm is contagious—especially for the astounded Mrs. Givings. As an artist with renewed enthusiasm for his art and his life, Mr. Lewis is a featured standout among a strong cast of principals and a performance worth waiting an act to see.

As co-set designers, Norm Beamer and Caroline Clark have fit onto the rather tight stage the two rooms needed for Ms. Ruhl's script: a slightly raised doctor's examination room in the background and a floor-level parlor in the fore. Both are attired in period furniture and fixings (Caroline Clark, properties designer), including a piano on which Mrs. Daldry periodically plays classical tunes popular in the era. Kathleen O'Brien's late 1800s costumes are fantastically authentic and impressive, and speak of an upper middle class of the time. A door buzzer becomes a comic character of the story, just one way Caroline Clark's sound design plays a nice role. The lighting of Kedar Lawrence sets the proper time of both rainy and snowy days.

While Caroline Clark directs the thoroughly delightful, intriguing, and entertaining first act with a pace and timing exquisite, the direction and script combine to make the second act slower and less captivating. A director's decision how to produce the play's moving ending unfortunately does not work very well—thwarted partly by the limitations of the small stage, partly by what seemed to be a technical foul-up the night I attended, and mostly by (in my opinion) how she chooses to resolve the relationship of the doctor-wife couple in the closing moments of the play. Together with an outside scene of winter that looks a bit too fake compared to the nicely done interior, the final moments just do not do justice to an otherwise well-acted, well-produced, and very enjoyable evening.

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play continues through October 1, 2017, at the Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View CA. Tickets are available at or by calling 650-254-1148.

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