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The newly renovated lobby of the Center for Dramatic Art on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill was buzzing with excitement and anticipation of the official opening night of the 2011-12 season of PlayMakers Repertory Company, arguably the finest professional regional theatrical company in the United States. The presentation, which will run through October 9, 2011, is Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), nominated for three Tony Awards in 2010.
It was difficult to get a sense of this play beforehand as many of the descriptions were filled with terms like "vibrator," "sexual machines" or "barbaric medical treatment of women." I walked in prepared for a somewhat serious and scathing treatment of the medical profession and men, in general, but when it was done I had experienced one of the funniest, most thought provoking, and ironically, contemporary looks at miscommunication, ignorance of basic truths, and relationships of all varieties.
Marion Williams' fabulous set transports us to a late 19th century upper class home, as the opening scene right away introduces us to two of the central characters who are never seen: Thomas Edison and electricity. Mrs. Givings, played with a combination of great comic flair and hidden anguish by Kelsey Didion, is in her parlor repeatedly turning on and off an electric lamp in wonderment at this new invention. Her husband, Dr. Givings (Matthew Greer), is in his upstairs "operating theater" (the next room), awaiting a new patient. Dr. Givings' specialty is a modern and revolutionary treatment of "female hysteria" whereby he uses electrical stimulation to induce a "paroxysm," a genteel term for "orgasm." Mr. and Mrs. Daldry arrive (Jeffrey Blair Cornell and Katie Paxton) seeking help for Mrs. Daldry's chronic headaches, sensitivity to light and sound, depression, and general malaise. We are then introduced to the focal point of the play: the electronic vibrating machine. Mrs. Daldry undresses, lies down, the machine goes on, the lights flicker and the doctor administers "the cure" amid cries of glee, pleasure, and pain.
Mrs. Giving's wonders what goes on "in the next room" but she has other problems. Her milk has dried up and their infant daughter is losing weight and not thriving. In need of a wet nurse, they hire Elizabeth (played with great nobility and dignity by Dee Dee Bateast), who recently lost her three-month-old son. Although a well-written part, Elizabeth comes off as the cliché of the lower economic scale, a salt-of-the-earth person who is more in touch with her humanity, feelings, and the truly important things in life. An especially funny scene is when Elizabeth suggests to Mrs. Daldry and Mrs. Givings that the feelings produced by the machine can also happen during relations with one's husband. The incredulous reaction by the sophisticated ladies is worth the price of admission.
We eventually meet Leo (Matt Garner), a free spirit artist who becomes Dr. Giving's first male patient. He requires the use of a slightly different, more invasive instrument (use your imagination) and when the rarity of a man suffering from this "hysteria" is discussed, the good doctor, in a very professional manner, quips that, "well, he is, after all, an artist!" Leo speaks to Mrs. Givings of art, Italy, the importance of really looking at the world, and love that encompasses more than a mechanical quickie that must be endured.
As you can imagine, the possibilities for various combinations and situations is somewhat endless, and this leads to several encounters where the women break into the "operating theater" and discover not only the machine but also the fact that these sensations may also be elicited with a more "hands on" approach. One of the participants is the doctor's assistant Annie, played by veteran PlayMakers actress Julie Fishell. Annie initially displays nurse Ratched iciness but evolves into a sad and sympathetic character.
There are many intertwining issues and historical references and metaphors that can only be experienced by seeing the play. The costume designer, Anne Kennedy, not only meticulously presented the period dress, but also made these clothes one of the stars of the production – both visually and psychologically. We can never answer the question of whether the numerous layers and paralyzing constrictions of the, mainly, women's clothes caused or contributed to sexual repression, but it was certainly artistically and beautifully raised.
I found the second act to drag a bit, although that is only in comparison to the excellence of the rest of the play. The closing scene is both stunning and quite unexpected, since Dr. Giving's transformation seems somewhat contrived: up to that point there was no indication of any authentic humanity beneath his pleasant, but scientific, exterior.
We, in this modern age, tend to look back at even our recent ancestors as a combination of quaint, simple and dumb: how could they think that way back then? In the Next Room is a wonderfully insightful and funny examination of sex and misunderstandings of the sexes at the dawn of the modern age, and PlayMakers hits every note just right. Maybe we have come full circle and our twenty-first century instant communication toys are just an illusion of closeness and we are still as clueless as Dr. and Mrs. Givings.
This show runs through October 9. For details, see the sidebar.