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“In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play” provokes buzz in Play House audience

The Cleveland Play House is maintaining its good track record of presenting plays that are both significant and audience-pleasing. The latest example is “In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play” by Sarah Ruhl. Though the subject sounds harsh, the play is hysterically funny. It is set in the repressive Victorian era.  Catherine Givings is the wife of a doctor obsessed with the discovery of electricity, and the way it can help his patients. Specifically, nervous, hysterical women can be treated, he finds, with a vibrator that can “release excess fluids.”

At first, Catherine is not privy to what goes on in her husband’s consulting chamber. She has time on her hands because she cannot breast-feed her newborn daughter, and must employ a “wet nurse” to fulfill this task.

While the subject matter sounds awkward at best, know that “In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play” has hysteria not only in the doctor’s patients, but also in the audience through most of the show. Jeremiah Wiggins is the rigid, apparently passionless Dr. Givings. He administers his treatment to high-strung patient Sabrina, played by Brigit Huppuch, while his nurse, Annie, stands discreetly looking away. The audience erupts with waves of laughter. Part of the Victorian style of the play is that no one acknowledges that there is sexual pleasure connected with the “treatment.” Instead, patients come daily for “therapy” and exit the operating theater with a smile on their faces.

Beneath the surface of “In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play” is the tension over sexuality, which cannot be discussed openly in Victorian society. When Catherine and Sabrina join forces, they learn that they can get pleasure from the vibrator, but ultimately realize that their husbands are the true source of lasting pleasure.

The second act of the play is a bit tedious and long, but the payoff is the end, when beautiful imagery in both words and visuals affirms the love provided through marriage. This theme may sound trite, but is monumental in the play’s historic setting. Certainly not for children, “In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2010. It is a period piece that achieves relevance today. Laura Kepley’s direction uses broad strokes for the comedy, and later refines itself with small, subtle touches, and moves the characters from cartoonish actions to living, sensitive humans. Kepley is aided not only by a first-rate cast, but also with a detailed set by Michael Rainford and multilayered costumes created by David Kay Mickelsen.

“In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play” runs through May 13 at Second Stage. It is the centerpiece of the New Ground Theatre Festival – the Play House’s festival celebration of significant, new and “groundbreaking” theater works.

 

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