Once we as audience members get past the initial shock and titillation of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), we see that the messages from its 19th-century setting remain timeless in 2012—the pursuit of love at its most intimate, emotional core.
But in The Vibrator Play, the path explored in the late 1800s is new terrain. Dr. Givings, making use of the recent application of electricity, is using a mechanical vibrator on women “down there.”
In its early stages, vibrators were used to treat women (and some men) for “hysteria” and induce what is known today as an orgasm. So the good doctor ends up with happy and relaxed wives—all, that is, except for his own wife, Catherine, who hears the procedure and its effects in the next room.
While the playwright is making a number of points about what really leads to emotional intimacy and the boundaries in between—lack of communication between spouses, sexual ignorance, the suppression of women’s needs and desires—director Laura Gordon scratches the surface with these characters instead of exploring the depths. As a result, the actors play broad characterizations rather than peel back the layers emotionally (although we see plenty of layers of clothing removed and reapplied, given the Victorian sensibilities).
The men, fine actors all, play it as effete artist (Matthew Brumlow), genteel husband (Jonathan Smoots) and no-nonsense doctor (Grant Goodman). Given the playwright’s emphasis on women’s issues, it’s small wonder the women have more developed characters, but they still fill in as stereotypes: the suffragette like Catherine Givings, the black maid, the uptight, proper wife. It’s the doctor’s assistant, Annie, who slowly reveals herself over the course of the two-hour 15-minute production, thanks to the deftly nuanced portrayal by Jenny McKnight.
In the eternal search for emotional intimacy, In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) reminds us that the journey is paved with unexpected surprises and lessons along the way—electricity included.
In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) runs through April 22 in The Rep’s Stiemke Studio. For more information, call 414-224-9490 or visit www.milwaukeerep.com.