note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Sheila Barth
SpeakEasy Stage Company kicks off its new season in high gear with the Boston premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s Broadway comedy, “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play).” It revolves around the fact that in the 1880s, doctors used vibrators to treat “hysteria” --- in women, primarily, and occasionally in men.
The play premiered on Broadway in 2009, where it earned a Tony Award nomination and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2010. Despite its controversial subject matter, Ruhl’s comedy of late 1880’s mores is an artistic triumph at SpeakEasy Stage Company.
Director Scott Edmiston‘s artistic finesse and this exceptional cast of brilliant Boston stars --- Anne Gottleib, Marianna Bassham and Derry Woodhouse among others --- personify and poke fun at a controversial, demeaning, historical subject that Ruhl has brought to light.
The play is set in an upstate New York doctor’s treatment room/drawing parlor in the 1880s. Like a split personality, action that occurs in the adjoining doctor’s treatment room spills into the personal lives of the doctor, his bland assistant, his exuberantly curious wife, and patients --- eventually breaking down the wall between them.
The subject of Victorian-Era male-dominated society that’s on the brink of enlightenment (thanks to Thomas Alva Edison’s invention of electricity) is the core of Ruhl’s play --- yet the times trivialized women, treating them like hysterical, suppressed Stepford wives . However she cleverly delves further into the psychological, sociological and historical aspects, adding a comic edge.
Susan Zeeman Rogers’ cleverly crafted set, coupled with Karen Perlow’s lighting, Dewey Dellay’s wild assortment of electronic sound effects and Gail Astrid Buckley’s stunning, historically accurate costumes, add to this production’s richness. We are able to eavesdrop into both rooms simultaneously, witnessing cause and effect, apprehension and rapture, science and society.
Also, the cast adds insight and depth to all characters, leading them from dour depression at times to childish glee and exultation; from scientific and psychological unawareness to sexual breakthroughs.
Derry Woodhouse is intentionally one-dimensional as Dr. Givings, who claims he’s “boring and scientific,” but personally devoid of human emotion. In his own way, he adores his wife Catherine (Anne Gottlieb) who bubbles over with curiosity and passion for life while tackling loneliness and feelings of inadequacy for not producing enough milk for her baby daughter. Dr. Givings’ colorless, mousy assistant Annie (Frances Idlebrook) is quietly dutiful in the background, eventually experiencing her own self-actualization.
Marianna Bassham is most compelling as deeply depressed/suppressed Sabrina Daldry, who after responding successfully to treatment, giggles with Catherine during mutual secret experiments. And Lindsey McWhorter, as black wetnurse Elizabeth, skillfully hides her anguish of losing her infant son while resentfully nursing Catherine’s healthy baby daughter.
And Dennis Trainor Jr. as Sabrina’s stereotypical, unthinking husband, and Craig Wesley Divino as depressed, anachronistic artist Leo Irving, are captivating foils.
As each character gains insight and inner strength, their intertwined paths are laced with ultimate self-realization. The play ends with a silent, stirring scene between Dr. Givings and Catherine that’s bathed in blue tones and gently falling snow, filling the stage with warmth.
BOX INFO: Two-act play written by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Scott Edmiston, presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company through October 16 in the Roberts Studio Theatre, Boston Center of the Arts, Stanford Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St., Boston. Contains brief nudity and adult content. Showtimes are Wednesday, Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m. Tickets are $50,$55; seniors, $45,$50; gallery seats, $30; under age 25, $25; student rush, $14 with valid college ID, one hour before the curtain. at the Box Office only. Call 617-933-8600 or visit www.BostonTheatreScene.com.