Jan. 30 Syracuse Stage: In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play

Syracuse Stage presents Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play" (photo: Michael Davis)

Syracuse Stage presents Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play” (photo: Michael Davis)

Syracuse Stage’s ‘In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play’ hits the spot

Sarah Ruhl’s amusing play about treating ‘female hysteria’ during the Victorian Era is just what the doctor ordered 

By Barbara Haas

It’s fascinating to see what a truly creative mind can do with original source material. That’s one of the many pleasures of seeing Sarah Ruhl’s very funny, sweetly tender play, In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play.

The historical record shows that since ancient times, “female hysteria” was thought to be caused by a congested womb. To relieve this condition, it was accepted medical practice for the physician to bring about a “hysterical paroxysm” by massaging a woman’s genitalia. With the introduction of electricity, the therapist’s hand was replaced by the more efficient mechanical vibrator.

How does Sarah Ruhl create a play out of this intriguing material?

Since it wasn’t uncommon at the turn of the 20th century for a doctor’s office to be a room in the home, Ruhl had the inspired idea of splitting the stage in two. On one side stands the operatory of Dr. Givings (Christopher Kelly), with its treatment table and large contraption. On the other is the Victorian family parlor, the abode of Mrs. Givings (Marianna McClellan). In this manner, some curious medical history is intertwined with family dynamics.

Enter the “hysterical” patient Sabrina Daldry (Kate MacCluggage), on the arm of her distressed husband (Brian Keane), and the play is off and running.

From left: Lena Kaminsky as Annie; Kate MacCluggage as Sabrina Daldry; and Christopher Kelly as Dr. Givings (photo: Michael Davis)

From left: Lena Kaminsky as Annie; Kate MacCluggage as Sabrina Daldry; and Christopher Kelly as Dr. Givings (photo: Michael Davis)

Dr. Givings is the soul of discretion, turning his back as Mrs. Daldry is helped out of her garments by his assistant Annie (Lena Kaminsky). Gazing into the middle distance, he tells “an amusing story” about Benjamin Franklin while matter-of-factly applying the vibrator under the sheet to his patient’s private parts. When Mrs. Daldry emerges from her highly satisfactory treatment, she’s looking better already.

Mrs. Daldry has no idea what it is that she is experiencing, but she returns with increasing eagerness for follow-up visits. Director May Adrales stages these scenes with a sure comic sense. Mrs. Daldry flings herself up on the treatment table, the toes of two slightly trembling shoes protruding from the bottom of the sheets.

Marianna McClellan as Catherine Givings  and Mark Junek  as Leo Irving (photo: Michael Davis)

Marianna McClellan as Catherine Givings and Mark Junek as Leo Irving (photo: Michael Davis)

Sarah Ruhl’s real stroke of ingenuity (she is, incidentally recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant), came with the creation of wife Catherine Givings, enchantingly played by McClellan. Flighty, full of repressed energy and always saying the wrong thing, she is at heart a true romantic, longing to stride through the rain unshielded by an umbrella. Ruhl tells us a lot about her characters through the imagery of their language.

No wonder Catherine is susceptible to the charms of the well-travelled Leo Irving (Mark Junek), a patient who is a rare male hysteric — though as Dr. Givings postulates, this is not so surprising given that Leo is an artist. Curious about the strange cries she overhears from “the other room,” Catherine insists upon experiencing the mysteries of the “Chattanooga Vibrator” for herself.

Completing the cast is Elizabeth (Krystel Lucas), the Afro-American wet nurse who, in a tangentially related sub-plot, has been hired to feed the Givings’s baby. Apparently more in touch with her body than the Victorian ladies who have been brought up to feign sleep when visited by their husbands, Elizabeth explains the connection between marital relations and the strange feelings caused by the vibrator.

In some truly touching scenes, Catherine helps her husband open himself to emotional as well as physical intimacy. Ruhl keeps the good doctor in character as he declares his love for his wife: “I bless thee: temperomanibular joint. I bless thee: buccal artery and nerve…”

Syracuse Stage made a good choice in presenting this play in time for Valentine’s Day.

Details Box:
What: In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl, directed by May Adrales
Where: Syracuse Stage, 820 E. Genesee Street, Syracuse, NY
Performance reviewed: Friday, Jan. 30, 2015 (opening night)
Time of performance: About 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission
Remaining performances: Plays through February 15
Tickets: $30-$54, various discounts available: Call (315) 443-3275 or SyracuseStage.org
Family guide: Recommended for mature audiences

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