Theater

In the Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play) Hits the Spot Despite Being a Bit Overstuffed

It turns out that one can, in fact, have too much of a good thing. Witness Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), Actors Theatre's season opener at the Herberger. This gorgeous, neatly acted production is flawed not in its execution, but in its over-long script, which Ruhl crowds with too many themes and several superfluous characters. That we leave the theater not overwhelmed by all this extraneous stuff but happily entertained is a tribute to the talents of director Matthew Wiener and his fine cast and crew.

Primarily an observation of the healing nature of women's relationships with one another, Ruhl's story is set in the late 19th century and is built around the use of newfangled electrical stimulation machines — the vibrator of the play's title — to treat "hysteria" and other psychological ailments in women. But Ruhl isn't having a laugh at early medicine (these contraptions and treatments are real) so much as she's commenting on ancient attitudes about female sexuality and "a woman's place."

She does so in a story that's overlong yet still full of fun. Set in New England not long after the invention of electricity, the story unfolds in the front parlor and office of Dr. and Mrs. Givings. He's a gynecologist who treats hysteria with an electric-powered contraption that he slips under the foundation garments of local women, brought to him by their short-tempered husbands. Catherine is the good doctor's much younger wife, who's recently given birth and is bored. Unable to breastfeed her own baby, she's made to hire a wet nurse. Frustrated by her husband's lack of affection, she listens while he tends to other women's emotional (and sexual) needs, and interacts with the parade of patients who traipse through her home on their way to her husband's office in the next room. Eventually, Catherine resolves to mend her own relations with her husband — without the help of electricity.

Angelica Howland is bright and charming as Catherine, whom she manages to make both strong-willed and naive, unafraid of her desires and yet unsure of how to achieve them. Francis Jue's melodic voice and gentle demeanor afford the harried doctor more compassion than does Ruhl's script. Both Lillie Richardson, as a wise wet nurse, and Zac Yurkovic as a horny painter bring enough charm to overcome the fact that their characters really have no place at all in this over-populated play. Wiener picks up some of the slow spots with cartoony physical humor; his single misstep is the oddly casual, contemporary diction that most of the cast uses throughout.

Although I'd gladly have done without the several extraneous "important" issues — racism, classism, homosexuality — that Ruhl has shoehorned into a story that's already full of canny commentary on sexism and feminine strength, I left — thanks to Wiener and his brilliant cast —thoroughly entertained by this fine production of her play.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela