Chicago Theatre Review
In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) – Timeline Theatre
Playwright Sarah Ruhl, one of America’s finest contemporary playwrights, is known for devising original plays and adaptations with a sound, realistic message that ultimately soar into a surrealistic realm of fantasy. Some of her works that’ve been recently produced in Chicago include “The Clean House,” “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” and “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday.” TimeLine Theatre’s new production of this historical comedy is presented with dignity and period accuracy. It also allows for much humor, the kind that flows from characters reacting honestly to their own personal discoveries and unexpected situations. It is, in a word, superb.
Nominated for the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play, as well as being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, Ms. Ruhl’s play was inspired by Rachel P. Maines’ nonfiction examination of womanhood in her book, The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. The playwright was also influenced by Jane Golden’s A Social History of Wet Nursing in America. Information from both books are represented in this unflinching look at women’s sexuality during the late 19th century.
Utilizing Edison’s modern discovery of electricity, Dr. Givings has created a machine to treat women’s “hysteria.” Relegated to the sitting room, to care for their new baby and answer the door, his young, lonely, inquisitive wife Catherine is understandably restless. She’s especially curious about what goes on in the next room, her husband’s operating theatre. The distracted doctor thinks that since he’s given his wife a comfortable home and a child, she has enough to keep her busy and away from meddling in his “dry, boring science.” But Dr. Givings is mistaken.
The moans and shrieks of ecstasy emanating from behind the closed door continually pique Catherine’s interest. Mrs. Daldry, one of Dr. Givings’ newest patients, emerges from the other room with rosy cheeks, a bounce in her step and a brand new, sunnier disposition. She’s even able to play the piano once again, a talent that she’s denied for years. As Mrs. Daldry returns each day to continue her treatments, even her wardrobe reflects the change in her personality, evolving from dark colors and heavy fabrics to colorful, lighter and flowing gowns.
Every so often Givings is asked to treat a male patient. “Hysteria is rare in a man; but then again, he IS an artist,” says the good doctor. Leo Irving has returned from Europe finding he’s no longer able to paint. But once Dr. Givings begins working his electrical magic on him, the artist regains his old joie de vivre and begins painting once more. His first subject is Elizabeth, Mrs. Daldry’s African American housekeeper and Catherine’s wet nurse. As Mrs. Givings sees more and happiness in her husband’s satisfied patients, she longs for that same release from her own lonely, tedious life.
There are so many different themes embedded within the plot of this two-act comedy that it’s difficult to effectively sum them up. The characters are realistic and funny and the cast is terrific in their portrayals. Anish Jethmalani, seen in TimeLine’s
“Disappearing Number” and “Blood and Gifts,” portrays the strong, no-nonsense scientist, Dr. Givings. He displays far more empathy and concern for his patients than his own wife. His transformation in the play’s final moments, thanks to a brilliant performance by lovely Rochelle Therrien, as his wife Catherine, makes for a beautiful and moving climax to this story. This is Ruhl’s one flight of fantasy in this play. Ms. Therrien’s character is the true focus of this story and she plays her role like a lovable young colt, flighty, inquisitive and tired of being lonely and ignored.
Making her TimeLine debut is an absolute jewel of an actress. Melissa Canciller is delightful as Mrs. Daldry. She journeys from being sullen and closed off to the rest of the world, sensitive to light, sound and the color green, to being a contented free spirit who finally loves her life. She even discovers that, provided with the right stimulation from Dr. Givings’ midwife nursing assistant, Annie (played with honesty, pathos and a touch of humor by the always wonderful Dana Tretta), Mrs. Daldry has found that she may even be attracted to other women, a side of her psyche that she’d never before acknowledged.
The wonderful Krystel McNeil, who was a standout in TimeLine’s “Spill,” Windy City’s “Booty Candy” and the Goodman’s “Objects in the Mirror,” is magnificent as Elizabeth. It’s through this gentle, empathetic character that we hear the author’s thoughts spoken from the heart. She modestly advises both Catherine and Mrs. Daldry that the excitement experienced in Dr. Givings’ new electric invention are the same sensations a wife should receive when having intimate relations with her husband. She also provides the somewhat jealous Catherine with some good, sound advice concerning motherhood and children. This is yet another standout performance by one of Chicago’s finest actresses.
Edgar Miguel Sanchez, as exuberant artist Leo Irving, and Joel Ewing, as the conservative Mr. Daldry are both making their
TimeLine debuts. Each portrays a slightly broad, yet humorous gentleman from different walks of life. Irving is a free-spirited painter who once again regains his inspiration to create. With his renewed attitude, Irving understandably believes that everyone around him shares his passion. Daldry thinks that by having Dr. Givings cure his wife that life will once again be smooth and return to the way it once was before Mrs. Daldry’s “hysteria.” However, after Mrs. Daldry has received her treatments her eyes open to the life she’s been missing.
Beautifully directed with style, wit and sensitivity by actress and company member Mechelle Moe, Ruhl’s highly entertaining play is both playful and poignant. Sarah JHP Watkins’ gloriously detailed Victorian setting, which contrasts Catherine’s feminine parlor domain with Dr. Giving’s more masculine operating theatre, “the other room,” provides a stage setting that exudes high class elegance. Alison Siple’s and Katie Cordts’ gorgeous and authentic, period-perfect costumes and wigs are breathtaking and literally add another layer to these marvelous characters. Removing and re-dressing in all their bustles, petticoats and corsets comprises a major portion of the actress’ stage business. Brandon Wardell’s lovely candlelight and electric lighting design offers challenges and inventive opportunities, particularly in the play’s final winter garden scene. And Andrew Hansen has devised a soundtrack of original music and sound effects that dazzles. Listen carefully to his string quartet interpretations of pop songs, such as Katy Perry’s “Fireworks” and A-ha’s “Take On Me,” chosen with shrewd humor and presented during the preshow and intermission. Note that every piece has a title that reflects either electrical or discovery themes.
Sarah Ruhl’s hilarious, yet snappy look at turn of the century manners and morals is not that far removed from today’s continuing discussion concerning women’s rights. Despite its historical significance, this production, under Mechelle Moe’s expert direction, is filled with good vibrations, both insightful and fresh. The playwright and director point up how society and, in particular, men still must recognize the needs and potential of women, even in the 21st century. TimeLine presents an adult comedy that’s fun, unabashedly about sex, historically accurate and still relevant, even today.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 16-December 16 by TimeLine Theatre Company at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 773-327-5252 or by going to www.timelinetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.