Playwright: Sarah Ruhl
At: TimeLine at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
Tickets: 773-327-5252; TimelineTheatre.com; $42.50-$56.50. Runs through: Dec. 16
In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play also could be sub-titled "clueless about orgasm," but perhaps that's too blunt for a comedy. There always have been skilled lovers, male and female, who understand sexual mechanics, but there probably have been more who have not understood or willfully misunderstood ( for example, cultures supporting female circumcision ). Indeed, certain time periods are famous for promoting sexual ignorance and repression, among them the 1880s Victorian Era, during which Sarah Ruhl's 2009 play is set.
The focus is on Dr. Givings ( Anish Jethmalani ) and his free-spirited wife Catherine ( Rochelle Therrien ), and the doctor's patient Sabrina Daldry ( Melissa Canciller ) and her husband ( Joel Ewing ). Progressive Dr. Givings specializes in new-fangled electrical stimulation machinery to treat "hysteria," a wide-ranging collection of symptomsmostly in women but occasionally in menresulting from tight corsets, lack of exercise, bad diet, psychological subordination, emotional repression and sexual dysfunction. Basically, good Dr. Givings uses machines to bring patients to orgasm, after whichsurprise!they feel much, much better. Givings is caring, considerate, courteous and staggeringly ignorant. He never recognizes the link between his treatments and human sexuality, female or male. Both couples live in what they imagine are happy marriages, but in which romantic notions vanished long ago and physical fulfillment is absent.
In the course of the play's intricate structure, two catalytic figures enter the scene: a quietly-knowing and self-assured African-American wet nurse ( Krystel McNeil ) and a passionate Dionysian artist ( Edgar Miguel Sanchez ). The person they affect most is Catherine Givings, who slowly emerges as the hero of the play, drawing her devoted but repressed husband towards the prospect of a marriage based on new-found emotional and physical openness, leading to fulfilling and trusting intimacy.
Whew! It's hot stuff, fundamental stuff and surprisingly funny stuff, but never at the expense of the characters. With a lot of irony and a touch of sarcasm, Ruhl's women rule but she makes the men sympathetic as well, much preferring to educate them rather than punish them. It's smart, gifted, inquisitive and compassionate playwriting, which are hallmarks of Ruhl's tremendously varied output.
Under director Mechelle Moe, this production is appealingly acted and incredibly handsome. Alison Siple's sumptuous period costumes make one wonder how women did anything at all in the voluminous, bustled, corseted garments of the day. Sarah JHP Watkins's elaborate but airy see-through scenic design ( so warmly lit by Brandon Wardell ) suggests the busy patterns and textures of late-Victorian décor without actually recreating them ( except for one floral border ). The acting is focused, sincere, frequently wry ( especially Ewing ) and usually understated ( except for Sanchez who is too oversized ). There's effective original music, too, by Andrew Hansen. In the Next Room is a good destination.