Theatre Review: In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)

Theatre Inconnu's got a hit on its hands with a play by Sarah Ruhl.

Emma Conde, Celine Richmond, Julian Cervello and Odile Nelson in Theatre Inconnu's production of In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play).

Emma Conde, Celine Richmond, Julian Cervello and Odile Nelson in Theatre Inconnu's production of In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play).

“I’m lonely!” – Mrs. Givings

Theatre Inconnu kicks off its 2013 season with a winner: In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) by Sarah Ruhl. Basically, it rocks. By turns funny, touching and sexy, Theatre Inconnu’s production bewitches, providing real catharsis and a transcendent, exquisitely tender ending.

In the Next Room takes place in an 1880s spa town in New York State (not to be confused with the inferior 2011 film “Hysteria” about a similar subject, but set in England.) Mrs. Givings watches as her husband treats a parade of women (and, eventually, men) for what he diagnoses as “hysteria.” Whatever their contemporary diagnoses would be, Dr. Givings prescribes rigorous application of electrical charge; in other words, he stimulates them with a vibrator he has invented. Meanwhile, Mrs. Givings remains unaware of the details of her husband’s practice. She is concerned that she cannot provide adequate milk for their newborn baby, and must hire a wet nurse. As desire is liberated by Mr. Givings’ device, forbidden love arises across boundaries of class, race and propriety.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Playwright Ruhl describes her writing style as interpreting “how people subjectively experience life” because “everyone has a great, horrible opera inside of him.” She also says that her plays have a “medieval sensibility of … transformation.” Each actor in Theatre Inconnu’s production brings tremendous, subjective vitality to their roles. Odile Nelson as Mrs. Givings completes a transformative character arc, beginning in smug, racist propriety and finishing by revealing her profound needs. Nelson’s character leads with her hands, which flit about the stage, trying to keep things in their place, and nudge things to where she feels they should be.

Dr. Givings, played by Julian Cervello, captures the persona of a 19th-century man of science, sure of his practice, even if he is oblivious to the emotional upheaval he unleashes around him. In the end, Cervello provides Dr. Givings some humanity and vulnerability. Frequently, actors have to change out of layers of 19th-century women’s costume — on stage — while still meeting all of the beats of a tightly-scripted play. It is an impressive feat.

Director Naomi Simpson also goes credit for both set and lighting design. It’s a wonder how Simpson choreographs a large ensemble cast, unwieldy furniture and complex costume changes, all on Theatre Inconnu’s shallow stage. The set is divided in two, as the script requires: one side is Dr. Givings’ office; the other is Mrs. Givings’ sitting room (which doubles as her husband’s waiting room). Simpson, as lighting designer, synchs lighting changes with the action as it moves from room to room. At times, both rooms are lit; at other times, one room is dim but the action is still discernible. The result is layers of accented action. In Mrs. Givings’ sitting room, an era-appropriate piano sits, poorly tuned, serving as an apt metaphor for her loneliness and neglect.

If there is any justice, Theatre Inconnu has a hit on their hands. See their production of “In the Next Room” while you can.

 

In the Next Room runs at Theatre Inconnu (1923 Fernwood) Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 8pm, and Saturday and Sunday at 2pm until March 2. Tickets are available at ticketrocket.org or 250-590-6291.

 

By Brent Schaus

arts@mondaymag.com

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