In Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play,” a Victorian doctor and his wife install electricity in their home, and soon after the electric lamps come vibrators, wet nurses, and the wife’s increasingly desperate attempts to fend off loneliness and find intimacy with her husband and newborn child. What this means for the audience of the Victory Gardens Theater production is an appealing mix of comedy and drama.
Dr. Givings (Mark L. Montgomery) treats women with “hysteria,” that particular female condition caused by various problems with the womb, be it too much moisture, lack of children, or any number of things. What the well-to-do ladies in town do is enter the operating theater, lie back on a table, and allow the good doctor to apply his mechanical device under her skirts on her, er, area. We get to see him administer this treatment several times on a Mrs. Daldry (Polly Noonan), a nervous woman who benefits greatly from the “paroxysms” she experiences under the vibrations of the machine. Mrs. Givings (Kate Fry) becomes curious about the improvement in Mrs. Daldry’s health, and soon she’s demanding her husband mix his personal and professional life by trying the machine on her.
As with all Ruhl plays, there are a number of quotable lines and many intriguing, slightly morbid ideas batted about. Director Sandy Shinner has chosen to present a straightforward period piece, which is understandable in this established theater, but I do wonder what could have been done with a more inventive dramatization of some of those poetic lines and surreal images.
The cast turn in wonderful performances, especially Fry, whose flighty chattering brought many laughs, but who ably conveyed the aching sense of isolation lurking underneath the high spirits. Montgomery’s scientific seriousness contrasts hilariously with his earnest application of the mechanical treatment. The Givingses have lost their romantic spark, and it isn’t until they introduce electrical machines to their lives that they rediscover it.