Blue Room hits the spot with fulfilling sex comedy
Set in 1880s New York at the artificially lit dawn of the “Electrical Age,” Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play delivers with an alternating current of very funny sex comedy and very poignant humanistic drama. Co-directed by Hilary Tellesen and Leesa Palmer, this production—which opened last Thursday, April 21, at the Blue Room Theatre—uses a fantastic cast to bring every element of Ruhl’s brilliantly witty and insightful script to life on stage.
We are first introduced to young mother Catherine Givings (Jami Witt), amusedly demonstrating to her baby the novelty of turning on and off a newly installed electrical lamp in the nicely appointed parlor of her Victorian home. Her husband, Dr. Givings (Chad Lewis), wordlessly passes through the room on his way to his “operating theater,” which, with its black and white tiled floor and stirrup-equipped examination couch, is the coldly clinical polar opposite of the scarlet-brocade-wallpapered and Persian-carpeted parlor. The two halves of the set, designed by Amber Miller, like the personalities of the couple who inhabit them, give a split-screen effect to the actions and characters.
The doctor’s practice specializes in the treatment of feminine “hysteria,” a condition characterized by hypersensitivity to external stimulation as well as depression. Or, in the case of his new patient, Sabrina Daldry (Erin DeSeure), “weeping at odd moments during the day, muttering about green curtains or some such nonsense,” as Mr. Daldry, her patronizing and condescending husband (Kyle Horst), describes it to the doctor.
Convinced that Mrs. Daldry is indeed suffering from hysteria, the doctor ushers the husband from the operating theater and his patient sheds her outer garments with the aid of his assistant, Annie (Delisa Freistadt). He then administers the prescribed treatment, applying the newly invented electrical vibrator to her affected area in order to, as the doctor tells her, “produce in you what is called a paroxysm. The congestion in your womb is causing your hysterical symptoms and if we can release some of that congestion and invite the juices downward, your health will be restored.”
The onset of Mrs. Daldry’s first paroxysm—which climaxes with her exhortation of “Oh, God in His heaven!”—produced a well-earned paroxysm of laughter in the audience. As did the doctor’s seeming obliviousness as he recounted an anecdote about Benjamin Franklin while providing the necessary stimulation.
It’s this disconnect between the physical and the intellectual needs and experiences of its characters that drives both the play’s humor and compassion. The doctor’s wife’s craving for affection, pleasure and companionship is captured vividly by Witt’s portrayal of Mrs. Givings as an eager-to-please-and-be-pleased woman whose repressed passions manifest in seemingly scatterbrained attempts at conversation.
The secondary characters add depth (and humor) to the story. Frustrated artist Leo Irving (Sean Constantine), a male patient who undergoes prostate stimulation to relieve his very rare case of masculine hysteria, provides a sometimes-hilarious counterpoint to the doctor’s clinical obliviousness to passion. As he tells Mrs. Givings, “I have loved enough women to know how to paint. If I had loved fewer, I would be an illustrator; if I had loved more, I would be a poet.”
With a fascinating mix of characters, a historically accurate premise and a great cast, this production builds to a gentle but fulfilling climax that led to a well-deserved opening night standing ovation and a definite sense of universal good vibrations as we exited the theater.