“In the Next Room, or the vibrator play”: Funny and Profound, at Pear Theatre, Mountain View

“In the Next Room, or the vibrator play”: Funny and Profound, at Pear Theatre, Mountain View

Sarah Ruhl’s Vision Resonates in Caroline Clark’s Staging

by Jeff Dunn

Sarah Ruhl’s humorous and poignant play seems to be about quaint, yet effective 19th-century sexual vibrators. Later, we realize that the machines she depicts are cunning stand-ins—symbols for the arts themselves and how they stimulate our senses.

There’s a lot of art, artifice, and stimulation going on in “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play.” Pear Theatre’s director Caroline Clark—and two especially mesmerizing performances by Ellen Dunphy and James Lewis—make this one of the most rewarding productions of the year.

Catherine Givings (April Culver) and Leo (James Lewis). Back: Mrs. Daldry (Ellen Dunphy), Dr. Givings (Bradley Satterwhite), and Annie (Stephanie Crowley).

It’s the 1880s in a New York “spa town.” The two main characters are women who suffer from sexual ignorance. They know nothing about orgasm and have yet to experience it. Their husbands are clueless about women’s need for sexual pleasure. One of them is Dr. Givings (genial, rat-tat-tat talker Brad Satterwhite) an enthusiast of the Second Industrial Revolution and its inventions.

The good doctor is dedicated to the touch of electric vibrators to “cure” women of “hysteria,” at that time an almost mystical term for “female problems.” Along with his nurse-assistant Annie (dutiful, solid Stephanie Crowley), he practices a thriving business at his home “operating theater” in the “next room,” adjacent to his parlor. His apparent sense of propriety keeps him from informing his wife (April Culver, splendid) what he does there.

Playwright Ruhl presents Givings with two patients, Sabrina Daltry and Leo Irving (Dunphy and Lewis), whose treatment with his devices transforms their lives—and the lives of everyone around them.

Dr. Givings (Bradley Satterwhite) and Annie (Stephanie Crowley) hear the ailments of Mrs. Daldry (Ellen Dunphy), with help from Mr. Daldry (Troy Johnson).

Givings’ “next room” is the unknown country for the discovery of sexual release, the experience of which unleashes a whirlwind of emotional complications for the characters. Their travails lead them, and us, to a heightened awareness of “all types and shades of love.” We learn that science cannot explain love, neither then nor today.

“That is why we have poets,” says Dr. Givings as the importance of love in his life dawns upon him. All scientists can do, he concludes, is “classify the maladies arising from the want of it.”

Ruhl is the poet of yet another “next room” of special stimulation, the stage. There, the sound of her language can transfix our attention. Rather than using consistently realistic dialogue, Ruhl distributes marvels here and there with the music of her words.

Leo, whose painter’s block is removed by Givings’ treatment, explains why “November is the tallest month.” Our ears are tickled when he proclaims, “Sugar is for women and small fat boys.” We savor the simile when a soaked Sabrina reveals she looked “like a drop of water on a branch.” We imagine the sight of Leo’s painting, which attempts to express “the memory—of the movement—of very particular hands.” Ruhl’s people provide us with a gateway to the ineffable.

Annie (Stephanie Crowley) and Mrs. Daldry (Ellen Dunphy). All Photos by Michael Craig/Pear Theatre.

Noises come from the next room, causing Mrs. Givings to investigate. But we are already aware of the importance of sound in Ruhl’s world by the presence of a vibrating machine in the parlor—the Givings’ piano. Patient Sabrina plays the piano three times. Each piece she plays (miniature masterpieces by the unfortunately uncredited Jonathan Bell) shoots an increasingly emotional dart at the on-stage listener.

The first dart hits Mrs. Givings, who claims (falsely) that the music banishes an unrevealed “sadness,” which we learn is her supposed inability to provide enough milk for her baby. The second dart evokes tears from the wet nurse (intelligent, subdued Damaris Devito), who mourns her son lost in childbirth. The third dart, infused with Wagnerian longing, stimulates the normally contained Annie into making a surprising pass on Sabrina’s lips. Stage front lies a master vibrator with 88 switches!

Leo Irving (James Lewis) and Catherine Givings (April Culver)

Clarke’s entire cast (including Troy Johnson in his fine rendering of a stolid Mr. Daldry) is up to Ruhl’s challenges. With all the poetry and symbolism, we still experience passions simmering under Victorian psychological constraints—until they boil over. Lewis’ and Dunphy’s performances as vibratees Leo and Sabrina flood us with seas of emotional cross-currents—and Dunphy’s face is an ocean unto itself. See them and believe them!

Plotlines are many, symbolism is rife, and the dialogue verges on the meta-natural, a Ruhl trademark.  Yet her great and complexly resonant “vibrator play” with its transcendent ending calls out for repeat visits to the Pear Theatre.

 

“In the Next Room, or the vibrator play” by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Caroline Clark, by Pear Theatre, Mountain View, California, through Sunday, October 1, 2017. Info: thepear.org

Cast: Stephanie Crowley, April Culver, Brad Satterwhite, Ellen Dunphy, Troy Johnson, Damaris Divito, and James Lewis.

 

For a superb, detailed review of the 2009 New York production, see John Lahr’s New Yorker article:  good-vibrations

 

 

Comments are closed.