"Things that seem impossibly strange in the following play are all true," writes Sarah Ruhl in her playwright's note to In the Next Room or the vibrator play. "Things that seem commonplace are all my own invention."
In the Next Room centres around a chapter of medical history that, indeed, seems impossibly strange – the Victorian vibrator. Just placing the words side by side looks like an oxymoron based on our preconceptions of the period.
At the dawn of the electrical era in New York, Dr. Givings (David Storch) treats women for "hysteria," a disorder we no longer recognize, in a home office equipped with a "therapeutic electric massage" machine, a device we now would classify as a sex toy.
The emotions that flood through Dr. Givings' patients and overflow into his household as a result of his unusual practice, however, are entirely familiar.
Primarily, Ruhl's Pulitzer-nominated play is concerned with those of the doctor's neglected chatterbox of wife Catherine (Trish Lindström), who listens in from the next room with growing curiosity and jealousy. Her husband's work increases her sense of inadequacy caused by the fact that she has had to employ a wet nurse for her newborn.
That the wet nurse Elizabeth (Marci T. House) is a black woman only adds to the cocktail. "You'd rather have a negro Protestant than an Irish Catholic, wouldn't you?" Dr. Givings asks, with a lack of tact that is typical of the characters in the play.
While In the Next Room involves a fair bit of such snickering at the prejudices of the past, thankfully that is only on the surface. It actually proves quite easy to relate to characters grappling with new technologies that unsettle their understanding of themselves – devices that are somehow both intimate and disconnected. The overall effect is humbling: what misconceptions medical, sexual or otherwise do we currently subscribe to?
Despite its subject matter and comic set-pieces (Catherine eventually breaks into her husband's office with a hairpin) then, In The Next Room is not a sex – or any other type of – farce.
Director Richard Rose's production sets up false expectations in the opening scene by having Catherine and her baby shoved into a packed hall closet when new patient Sabrina Daldry (Melody A. Johnson) arrives with her husband.
The heightened physical performances Rose elicits from his cast don't really match up with the tone of Ruhl's script, which gets its laughs from an offbeat quirkiness rather than a razor-sharp wit, and which hides a lot of hurt under its humour.
Likewise, David Boechler's stylized design for the sets and costumes isn't quite right – it sets us up to expect the "impossibly strange" acts and words that follow, rather than allowing the audience to be surprised by them.
Consequently, the first act feels like a constant fumble for the right approach.
Only in the second act does Rose finally hit on it with the arrival of painter and new patient Leo Irving, played with a perfect wide-eyed style by Jonathan Watton. "Hysteria is very rare in a man, but then again, he is an artist," explains Dr. Givings, who has developed an adaptor called the Chattanooga Vibrator to treat him. (This is a real device – Google if you dare.)
Ruhl's characters tend to speak with an alarming directness and certainty that masks an underlying bewilderedness – and Watton nails that knowing-but-naive sensibility. For whatever reason, it seems to rub off on the others – in the second act we stop observing Catherine and Dr. Givings and begin to feel for them in their It, as well as Mrs. Daldry and Dr. Givings' quiet assistant, Annie (Elizabeth Saunders). It all comes together rather sweetly in the end.
Note to readers This online story has been modified to reflect the following print correction: David Boechler is the designer on In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play. Incorrect information appeared in Friday's paper.
In the Next Room runs until Oct. 23.
In the Next Room or the vibrator play
- Written by Sarah Ruhl
- Directed by Richard Rose
- Starring Trish Lindström and David Storch
- A co-production with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
- At the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto