Review: “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play”

Rochelle Therrien (right) as Mrs. Givings with Anish Jethmalani (Mr. Givings) in IN THE NEXT ROOM OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY
Photo by Joe Mazza / Brave Lux, Inc.

RECOMMENDED

Where: TimeLine Theatre Company at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through Dec. 16
Tickets: $42.50-$56.50
Phone: 773-327-5252

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play” turns what is now little more than a footnote in medical history into a fascinating, often funny exploration of the possibilities and limitations of technology and the differences between men and women with respect to sex and love.

Set in the 1880s, at the dawn of the age of electricity, in a prosperous spa town outside of New York City, the play focuses on Dr. Givings (Anish Jethmalani), who specializes in treating female “hysteria,” and his neglected wife, Catherine (Rochelle Therrien). The action takes place in their well-appointed home’s drawing room and the “next room,” his “operating theater,” both rendered in splendid detail by scenic designer Sarah JHP Watkins and lighting designer Brandon Wardell.

Thanks to the wonders of electricity, Dr. Givings has been treating patients he’s diagnosed with “hysteria”–which covers a wide range of symptoms from depression to excitability—with a stimulator to massage the pelvic area resulting in “paroxysms” meant to relieve the pressure. Like the real doctors using this treatment at the time, he apparently doesn’t see the connection between it an female sexuality.

Meanwhile, Catherine, who has recently given birth to a daughter and is upset that her milk isn’t adequate to sustain the baby, is lonely because her husband basically ignores her. She’s also becoming curious about the noises she’s hearing coming from the next room, especially since he diligently keeps her out of it and tries to prevent her from meeting his patients.

That doesn’t work. Catherine first strikes up a conversation with Sabrina Daldry (Melissa Canciller), who is brought in for treatment by her husband, Mr. Daldry (Joel Ewing). She’s suffering from nervousness and sensitivity to light, and the doctor’s ministrations seem to have a calming effect and bring the glow back to her cheeks. Catherine pumps her for information, the friendship between the women develops, and one day when Dr. Givings is at his club, Catherine picks the lock on the room and they try out the vibrator for themselves. Catherine has a very different reaction than Sabrina—she’s more excited than before—and this leads her to try to figure out why.

As Catherine’s agitation increases, other complications arise. Dr. Givings gets a visit from a rare male patient, Leo Irving (Edgar Miguel Sanchez), a painter who has lost his ability to paint since his lady love deserted him in Italy. Catherine falls in love with Leo’s artistic manner, but once treated (Dr. Givings’ device for men is a doozy), Leo just wants to paint Elizabeth (Krystel McNeil) as the Madonna. She’s the black wet nurse Dr. Givings has hired as the Madonna, and Leo is in love with her.

Elizabeth, who has lost her own infant son, is a voice of reason in the play, and her relationship with Catherine, who feels acutely inadequate as a mother because she can’t feed her child and thus is jealous of the wet nurse, is one of the most complicated of the evening. The other level-headed person is Annie (Dana Tretta), the midwife who serves as Dr. Givings assistant and whose budding feelings for Sabrina, which are mutual, have to be suppressed before they start, given the times.

There’s a lot going on here, some of it quite nuanced, and director Mechelle Moe keeps it all in balance in TimeLine Theatre’s first-rate production. She’s helped immensely by Therrien’s delightful performance as Catherine. She’s ditzy and talks incessantly (by her own admission), but she’s so charming and earnest in her curiosity that we can’t help caring about her and hoping Dr. Givings will realize how special she is—like he did when he first fell in love with her.

The three other women also are terrific in very different ways, and Jethmalani makes Dr Givings, who keeps insisting he’s a man of science, sympathetic enough that we hope he will come to his senses. Sanchez tends to go over the top as Leo, and it’s hard to believe Catherine would think herself in love with him except perhaps as a way of making her husband jealous.

The other stars of “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play” are Alison Siple’s sumptuous costumes (and Katie Cordts wigs). The characters keep having to get undressed and dressed in the course of the evening, so removing the layers—bustles, satin jackets and skirts, petticoats, etc.–takes on a ritual quality. Catherine and Sabrina’s clothing also changes in tone to suit their feelings at the time. There’s a little fudging, particularly in the final scene between Dr. Givings and Catherine, but I guess it can be forgiven given the intimacy of the theater—or maybe we should blame “intimacy designer” Rachel Flesher.