Buzz over Actors’ ‘In the Next Room’ is Well-deserved

L to R: Nurse Annie (Jenny McKnight), Dr. Givings (Grant Goodman) and Sabrina Daldry (Cassandra Bissell) before treatment.

The latest debut at Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, ‘In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)’ begins with Victorian housewife Catherine Givings as she rocks her swaddled babe and flicks ‘on’ and ‘off’ an electric lamp. “Look baby, it’s light! No candle, no rusty tool to snuff it out, but light, pure light, straight from man’s imagination into our living room,” she exclaims. Set in the 1880’s, Catherine and her husband, Dr. Givings, are living at a crossroads between stiff-collar propriety and turn-of-the-century science. And yet it’s an exploration of self that has so obviously been lost between the two. Playwright Sarah Ruhl’s latest is a study in compartmentalization, both physical and psychological. Or more specifically, on how easily the mind and body, let alone people, can be separated. A story of self-actualization and unspoken desire emanating outward from a provocative and illuminating new medical treatment, ‘In the Next Room’ is supercharged from ‘AAA’ to ‘D’ by the ability to combine its playful yet earnest examinations with intuitively motivated characters and high-voltage humor that relentlessly flirts with the line.

Dr. Givings (Grant Goodman) is a well-intentioned and inventive man who, like his heroes Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla, believes wholeheartedly in the capacity of science to right all wrongs. Operating an in-home practice in between lengthy bouts of scientific debate at “the club”, Givings and Nurse Annie (Jenny Mcknight) provide treatment for “hysteria” (a condition in some women and few men covering everything from general excitability to melancholiness and lack of color) by means of eliciting “paroxysms” from patients via direct massage with an electric vibrator. Active yet cooped-up and ultimately lonely, Catherine Givings (Cora Vander Broek) has been heretofore content to play the perfect housewife and allow her husband’s business (and her own emotions) to stay firmly ‘in the next room’, but comes to an increasingly fervent realization of some basic unfulfillment as science, domesticity and relationships come to be progressively intermingled. Helping to bring the ‘buzz’ out of the shadows are Sabrina Dalty (Cassandra Bissell), an ‘afflicted’ women brought in for treatment by her husband (Jonathan Smoots), the passionate, young and traveled artist Leo Irving (Matthew Brumlow) and Elizabeth (Tyla Abercrumbie), maid to the Mr. and Mrs. Daldry and now wet-nurse for the Givings’ newborn.

Leo (Matthew Brumlow) waxes poetically alongside Catherine Givings (Cora Vander Broek).

Given the subject matter it would be understandable to assume that the aforementioned humor of ‘In the Next Room’ would be exclusively of a crude or unseemly nature. That is thankfully and refreshingly not the case. Indeed, the characters are so painfully unaware of the sexual realities at hand, that even as the buzz of Dr. Givings’ machine becomes muffled underneath the white sheet which covers Mrs. Daldry, there is a strange and unexpected wholesomeness that only serves to make things all the more outrageous. Sensing his patient in a slight state of unease Dr. Givings remarks, “I’ll tell you a story. It will help you to relax.” The bizarrely clinical nature of the doctor’s mannerisms combined with the sporatic yelps and twitches of the by-no-means-relaxed Mrs. Daldry as the machine does its work is nothing short of comedic gold. But humor aside, it is the female members of the cast, specifically Bissell as Mrs. Daldry and Vander Broek as Catherine, who carry the biggest loads dramatically, both in terms of some particularly inspired performances as well as the vast amount of growth their respective characters see over the course of the narrative. The atmosphere is further assisted by top-notch costume and set design, the latter of which is effortlessly effective at establishing the simultaneous distance and closeness of the characters on-stage.

Director Laura Gordon and company have succeeded in translating Sarah Ruhl’s material to the Actors stage in a production that is equal parts entertaining and enlightening. The characters of ‘In the Next Room’ may be trapped in the late nineteenth century but their issues of emotional isolation, fulfillment and self-awareness are unfailingly relatable for an twenty-first century audience now de-personalized by tweets and Facebook posts as opposed to Victorian severity. In both cases illumination is only the flick of a switch, or perhaps a bit of committed self-reflection, away.

More information on ‘In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)’ available via Actorswebsite, with performances continuing through February 18th.

More articles by me here.

Chris Ritter <<<< <<<<