Ladies, start your engines
In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)
Capital Stage is creating a buzz with its current production, both onstage and off. The onstage buzz comes from the central prop in Sarah Ruhl’s play In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)—a replica of a Victorian vibrator that was used to bring women to orgasm as a treatment for “hysteria,” the umbrella diagnosis for what ailed those darned ladies.
The buzz offstage comes from an audience that not only laughs knowingly at both true and false references to women’s sexuality in the play, but also engages in stimulating conversations at intermission and afterwards (most notably in the women’s restroom).
In the Next Room is a fascinating look at a moment in history—the waning repressed Victorian era meeting the first bloom of early tech boom—when science and medicine were merging with that new-fangled discovery of electrical power. Doctors began courting machines as curative devices for various maladies, particularly in their female patients; thus the marriage of electrical current and women’s genitals.
Dr. Givings (a subtly touching Michael Stevenson) is an early adopter, eager to try out devices on his patients in his in-home practice. Lingering outside his office is his very frustrated wife, Catherine (Elena Wright in a wonderfully layered performance), a new mother unable to nurse her baby, confined by custom and mightily curious about the moans coming from her husband’s locked office. The first patient we meet is Mrs. Daltry (a very funny and expressive Katie Rubin), brought in by her husband (Greg Alexander), who wants her constant weeping to stop.
Playwright Ruhl ably intertwines intriguing issues (health, medicine, society, class, sexuality and gender) with so many subtle changes of tone (from comedy to thought-provoking to drama to sweet sentimentality). Each character adds a dimension that causes shifts in story and tone—the domestic wet nurse Elizabeth (Victoria Alvarez-Chacon), the “enlightened” artist Leo (Kirk Blackinton) and the doctor’s assistant Annie (Shannon Mahoney). Every member of this stellar cast is noteworthy, every performance electric and memorable, with excellent production values. It is an entertaining evening of good vibrations.