Review: In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) keeps the laughs coming 

The packed house on opening night of In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) made one thing abundantly clear: PURE, you had us at “vibrator.”

But who would have guessed that this play takes place not in some seedy urban underbelly, nor in the sterilized home of a jaded housewife, but in a Victorian-era America giddy with the recent invention of electricity? And in the Givings household, with which this story concerns itself, that giddiness is over more than electric lights. Dr. Givings specializes in treating women for hysteria, and his new electric device makes treatment easier, and most incredibly, so much faster. Three minutes, no more than five, as he tells one of his patients.

To just come out and say what’s going on would be untrue to the spirit of playwright Sarah Ruhl’s exquisitely delicate, funny, and clever drama, which treats a blatantly sexual subject through the mind-boggling innocence of upper-class Victorian women. It’s no big secret, of course, that Dr. Givings’ device is the first electric vibrator, the purpose of which certainly hasn’t changed. But Dr. Givings is utterly unaware of what is going on in his lady patients as they writhe and moan in his velvet-covered chair, knowing only that hysteria is caused by an excess of fluid in the womb, and this special treatment appears to successfully draw it out.

But not every lady in Dr. Givings’ circle is quite so satisfied. His young and lonely wife, Catherine, is perpetually overlooked by her husband, who is far more devoted to science than to her. To add to her difficulties, she is unable to nurse their baby and must give up that task to a wet nurse. She is, in short, thwarted in the most basic expressions of her femininity, and it doesn’t help that she can hear the strange noises that her husband’s patient Mrs. Daldry makes each time she visits the operating theater for her frequent treatments. Catherine is desperate for a connection — with her baby, with a friend, with her husband — yet despite her best efforts, she remains alone.

Director Cristy Landis, a PURE core member, is excellent at bringing out the comedy of In the Next Room, without neglecting the play’s deep emotional resonance. The set is unusually lavish for a PURE production, rich in sensual deep reds and soft cushions that reflect Catherine’s and Mrs. Daldry’s domesticated sexuality — it’s there, no doubt, but upholstered beyond either recognition or comfort.

The costumes, by CofC costume design professor Janine McCabe, are magnificent works of art that take no shortcuts: when the ladies disrobe for their treatment, they leave piles of jackets, skirts, blouses, petticoats, and corsets, and are still left wearing more than any woman today would walk out of the house in.

The extremely strong cast includes PURE newcomers Christian Self, Laurens Wilson, and Nthenya Ndunda, all of whom are fully up to the challenge of performing with the company’s core members. R.W. Smith, whose acting, directing, and writing is well known among local theater buffs, is nearly unrecognizable as the oblivious Dr. Givings, blinded by intellect, in a perfect 19th century mustache and spectacles. Smith’s ability to appear clinically detached from his patient even as she enjoys the treatment most intensely is seriously impressive. He is, in every sense, the emotionally unavailable scientist — even when sticking his head up Mrs. Daldry’s skirt to ensure the correct placement of the device. And when Givings, in response to his wife’s begging and pleading, tries the treatment on Catherine, his confusion and discomfort is both hilarious and tragic.

Pelham Spong, whom some may know as the burlesque performer Plume de Paname, acts the part of Catherine Givings with exceptional innocence, and is every bit the young girl just discovering herself as a woman. Her sadness at not being able to feed her own child speaks of much deeper issues, and Spong’s performance manages to convey this to the audience without betraying her character’s naïvete.

Andrea Studley, as Mrs. Sabrina Daldry, is in many ways the comic center of In the Next Room; her character, who first appears as a wan, fidgety, and nervous woman, undergoes a remarkable (and to all this play’s characters, mystifying) transformation as she begins visiting Dr. Givings on a regular basis. Studley’s gradually more confident posture and sparkling expressions — not to mention a heightened color in the lips and cheeks — all show how effective the frequent relief of all that pressure from excess womb fluid is, even though poor Dr. Givings keeps having to turn up the dial on the machine, and once resort to having his female assistant perform the “manual method” on her.

There is so much more to this play, which also deals with racial prejudice, Sapphic love, and questions of human intimacy, but I’ll forgo the extended synopsis and just urge you to see it for yourself. Seriously, if there is one play you see this season, make it In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play). You’ll thank yourself for coming … pun intended.

Location


Comments (3)

Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment

Classified Listings

Powered by Foundation   © Copyright 2017, Charleston City Paper   RSS