Sunday, October 7, 2012

Women Ruhl: The Vibrator Play

Edison’s electricity was just beginning to transform middle class American life in the early 20th century. This is the setting for In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) by Sarah Ruhl, now on stage at Ferndale Repertory Theatre.

The fictional Dr. Givings (played convincingly by Calder Johnson) has designed what today would be known simply as a vibrator, in order to treat hysterical symptoms in women. The joke in this play is that (with one or two possible exceptions) none of the characters—male or female—has today’s understanding of the vibrator’s effects in stimulating sexually pleasurable orgasm.

 What Dr. Giving’s patients experience was described as tension released in “hysterical paroxysm.” That one idea could easily organize a kind of farce, and there are predictably comic moments. But Ruhl does more, by exploring the mores and relationships that follow from this disconnect.

 Patient Sabrina Daldry (Megan Rae Johnson) gets her first vibrator treatment while Dr. Givings relates an interesting anecdote involving Benjamin Franklin. Meanwhile, in the parlor, the lively Mrs. Catherine Givings (Kelsey MacIlvaine) wonders what’s really going on, in her life as well as in the next room.

 There are plot threads involving a wet nurse (played by Ashley Russell) for Mrs. Givings baby, Dr. Giving’s nurse assistant (Greta Joan Stockwell), Sabrina Daldry’s husband (Jeremy Webb) and a male patient and artist (Bobby Bennett) who sets up contrasts of art and science.

 This play (first produced in 2010) could be described as layered, or cluttered. It sometimes totters from the inspired to the insipid but Ruhl takes the history seriously, with inevitable contemporary resonance. There is enough originality, humor, humanity and poetry in this play and this production, directed by Rae Robison, to engage audiences and foster conversation. It’s an adult theme, but it’s treated within conventional theatrical standards.

 The first night show I saw went smoothly, and except for some vocal projection problems, the acting was at least adequate and sometimes eloquent. All the actors had good moments, with MacIlvaine and her character’s nervous energy moving the action forward.

There were particularly effective and moving scenes between Catherine (MacIlvaine) and Sabrina (Megan Johnson, who continues to add subtle new colors to her acting), and between Sabrina and nurse Annie (Greta Stockwell.)

 But the flow of it all often felt rudimentary, with performances not always accessibly related to each other and to the play as a whole. Perhaps it hadn’t quite jelled yet, or it’s the nature of the script. The play does seem to involve some difficult and dynamic balancing acts in mood and style, which this production manages pretty successfully.

 Liz Uhazy is scenic and lighting designer, Calder Johnson designed costumes, JM Wilkerson the sound. In the Next Room continues weekends at Ferndale Rep through October 21.

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