Good buzz: In The Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)

  • 0 COMMENTS
Hysteria ensues in Live Arts' In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) starring Sarah Edwards as Sabrina Daldry,
Melissa Charles as Catherine Givings, and
Bill LeSueur as Dr. Givings. (Photo courtesy of Live Arts) Hysteria ensues in Live Arts' In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) starring Sarah Edwards as Sabrina Daldry, Melissa Charles as Catherine Givings, and Bill LeSueur as Dr. Givings. (Photo courtesy of Live Arts)

Onstage, a fine-featured woman removes her skirt, collapses her bustle, and adjusts the corset nipping her waist. Her hands are pale and flighty as she sits on the doctor’s bench and pulls a medical drape up to her chin. Diagnosed with hysteria, a Victorian umbrella term for ailments including headaches, light sensitivity, and predisposition to tears, Mrs. Sabrina Daldry reclines only when the nurse pushes her shoulders backward.

Flush with the thrill of domestic electricity, Dr. Givings reveals a mechanical wand with which he will administer “pelvic massage via mechanical manipulation.” A flipped switch, a high-pitched buzz, a fumbling, jerky prod beneath sheets—and we, silent voyeurs, watch Sabrina grimace, flinch and exclaim to God with the strength of her medically-induced orgasm.

Almost immediately, she begins to cry. The concerned doctor reanimates his vibrator. “Please,” she weeps, “don’t do it again. It—hurts.”

In an instant, we’re ambushed. Even as the scene gets funnier, as Sabrina redefines pain as pleasure and agrees to return for daily treatments, we linger on the familiarity of her reaction—our fear of desire and its sterile handling, the vulnerability that comes with letting go. Check your vapors at the door, because Live Arts’s production of In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) is not for the faint of heart.

Written by Broadway darling Sarah Ruhl and nominated for three Tony Awards, the show explores sexuality and satisfaction, motherhood and marriage, the limitations of science and the limits of love. Live Arts’s version is funny and sharp, featuring several well-articulated orgasms and a vibrator shaped like a drill. It’s an edgy choice for local theater, and C’ville should count its blessings—this production is one of the best I’ve seen in a very long time.

Set in two adjacent suites of a prosperous Victorian household, In the Next Room follows the parallel lives of Dr. and Mrs. Catherine Givings. As the doctor treats patients with his office door closed, Catherine watches a wet nurse feed her newborn, grappling with mother guilt as strange sounds leak through the wall. Eventually she begs Sabrina to show her the electric device—to demonstrate how to treat the hysteria her husband refuses to diagnose in his wife. But, as both women quickly discover, pelvic massage via mechanical manipulation cannot cure an absence of emotional intimacy.

As Dr. Givings, Bill LeSueur  (C-VILLE Weekly Art Director) is sincere and unapologetic, a man of science whose preoccupation with “paroxysm” is both earnest and refreshingly innocent. As his free-spirited wife, Catherine (Melissa Charles) is a fast-talking foil to his scientific deliberations. She’s enthusiastic, anxious, and consistently vulnerable, tantalizing the sympathy-starved Mr. Daldry (Kurt Vogelsang) and overwhelming artist Leo Irving (William Smith), a dandy who serves as comic relief and prefers the torture of exotic love to its homestead counterpart.

Despite multiple on-stage orgasms, Sarah Elizabeth Edwards plays Sabrina with dark-hued restraint, a picture of Victorian decorum whose passion reveals itself in flickers, brief looks and gestures. Katelyn Sack’s Annie is likewise dedicated to decorum; she seems resigned to heartache even as she makes bold moves against it. As Elizabeth, the wet nurse grieving the loss of her own child, Sharon Millner is firm and truthful, offering reactions that sometimes speak for the audience.

Double entendre and puns abound—this is a comedy, after all—but the show’s director (and Live Arts’ artistic director) Julie Hamberg understands that the show hangs on the strength of its fourth wall. She nurtures dramatic irony, a spirit of restrained authenticity, and this allows the story to come to life. Actors do not acknowledge the script’s puns, do not aggravate the awkward silences. No one indulges in a wink-wink-nudge—and wisely, because doing so would make the script cheap and uncomfortable. Avoiding the shallows of schtick and easy laughs, Hamberg leads us to deeper currents.

Ultimately, the success of In the Next Room leans on emotional truths that transcend the 1880s. While no single theme is explored in great detail—the script takes on too many ideas to delve very deeply—I guarantee you’ll be moved by one of them. Mark the clever metaphors of candles versus lightbulbs, precipitation versus preparation. Wonder if technology can replace human touch.

If you approach the show with a Freudian eye, you’ll no doubt find what you’re looking for. But may I suggest you relax your analysis, your text- or tweet-length commentary. Mrs. Daldry isn’t the only one squirming beneath the sheets, struggling to name what she truly desires. Go to the show and silence your cell phone—you might see yourself on the stage.

Through March 23/In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play/ Live Arts

Comment Policy