If you go to a show called “In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play,” you probably expect to be titillated by some salacious material. But if you can get past the prurient title, and decide to attend AthensWest Theatre Company’s production of this play by Sarah Ruhl, you will be rewarded with a superbly rendered theatrical experience that is both hilarious and moving, and indeed quite sexy.
The play deals with a physician in the dawning of the age of electricity (1880s) who treats women, and the occasional man, who demonstrate symptoms of hysteria and other neurasthenic conditions, with a prototype vibrator device, quite innocently “curing” his patients by administering orgasms, which provides immediate and evident relief, and clearly improves the patients’ condition when applied consistently over time. The plot revolves around the emotional isolation and longing experienced by the characters and their gradual realization that human connection, including but not just limited to sexual behaviors, should be the natural order for balanced mental and physical health.
Timothy Hull portrays Dr. Givings, as a serious scientist and caring but clueless husband, through sincere dramatic choices leavened by daffy comic touches. He strikes a delicate balance with a very difficult character, making us like and care about a man whose actions can be seen as quite callous, if not downright villainous. His wife Catherine is the play’s true protagonist, and Taylor Schulz traces her dramatic arc from witless housewife to de facto head of the household with many beautiful theatrical subtleties, especially in her gorgeous monologues. Both Hull and Schulz are completely engaging in their roles, very funny in the light moments and compelling in the heavy ones.
The supporting cast are all just as excellent as the leads. Natalie Bird and Mark Mozingo, the Actors Equity performers in this production, show the level of artistic attainment that should be associated with membership in that elite union. Their characters, patients of Dr. Givings, are nuanced and lively, stealing their scenes when appropriate yet thoroughly integrated into the action as foils. Laurie Genet Preston, always fascinating on stage, contributes a wonderful turn as Dr. Givings’ dour assistant Annie. Preston’s ability to immerse herself into any character is one of our region’s underappreciated theatrical talents. Tiffiney Baker, as the black wetnurse Elizabeth, also conveys many layers of feeling in her characterization, intermingling shame, sorrow, and dignity most palpably. Tim “X” Davis rounds out this magnificent cast as Mr. Daldry, the privileged male of the patriarchal societal norms skewered so effectively by this play.
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The treasure trove of acting skills assembled for this production have been well served by director Margo Buchanan. Her deft, meticulous staging is exemplary of how to conceptualize the telling of a story, maintaining a potent mix of movement and stasis even while balancing the quirky comic tone with the ardent human drama. Her design team – Karen Loeffler (costumes), Michael Sanders (scenery), Jan Yon (props), and Tom Willis (lighting) – have fulfilled her vision of a perfectly “period” mise-en-scene down to the last detail.
All of this excellence serves an even nobler purpose. In choosing this play, AthensWest has given to our community a refreshing forum in which to consider some of the most serious issues facing our society today. It confronts the appalling assumptions concerning women and as a corollary other kinds of “different” through which large groups of people may be oppressed or disenfranchised, long held by a rigidly white patriarchal society agonizingly slow to understand its own conflicts, let alone to change. This thematic content has steeped in the eight years since the play was written, and in today’s climate provides a welcome message of inclusion through connecting as human beings, equal and equivalent all, embracing our primal need for physical contact that establishes and enhances our interpersonal bonds.
Tedrin Blair Lindsay: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play”
What: AthensWest Theatre Company’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s play.
When: 8 p.m. April 20-22, 27-29; 2 p.m. April 23, 30.
Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Tickets: $25 general public, $20 seniors, military, students.