Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) is a strange work of theatre. Paradoxically, had it been even stranger--that is, had the playwright found a way both in content and form to match her provocative subject matter to a more radical and intersectional feminist/queer politics--the play might have been successful. But after first appearing to mock them, Ruhl instead opts to embrace the conventions of the nineteenth-century drawing room comedy, including its bourgeois hetero-patriarchal ending. This results in a play that veers wildly in its tone and that ends up reinscribing the very domestic structures--not least the whole idea of the family itself--it appears to be questioning. Director Keltie Forsyth, overseeing Ensemble Theatre Company's production of the play, which runs in repertory as part of their annual summer theatre festival until August 17, does her best to navigate these swings, but notwithstanding some fine performances and compelling dramatic moments, this staging leaves me flummoxed as to why the play (which ran on Broadway and was nominated for a handful of Tony awards) has garnered so much critical praise.
At the centre of the play, which is set in the late 1800s, just after the dawn of electricity, is Catherine Givings (Lindsay Nelson), an upper-middle-class woman in New York who is frustrated by the inattention of her husband, Dr. Givings (Sebastain Kroon), and also by her inability to breastfeed her newborn daughter. Dr. Givings' speciality is treating female hysteria and as a result of Edison's discovery of electrical current, Givings has found a sure-fire way to cure his patients: by applying a vibratory pulse to their pubic areas, which is supposed to relieve the pressure upon their wombs and restore them to a more contemplative mood. Thus does Ruhl introduce the conceit contained in the parenthesis of her play's title by anchoring her plot in actual history. Catherine, listening to her husband treat Mrs. Daldry (an excellent Christine Reinfort) "in the next room," becomes intrigued by her cries of pleasure and after forming a friendship with the woman over the course of successive visits (and also after sneaking into her husband's operating room and testing the machine on herself), Catherine convinces Mrs. Daldry that they should compare their respective responses to the vibrating machine's stimulus. But by this point we have learned that Mrs. Daldry much prefers the manual stimulation of Dr. Givings' assistant, Annie (Alexis Kellum-Creer), whose physiological and emotional attentions she finds much more satisfying than those of her husband (an incredibly stiff David Wallace).
Added to this mix are two sub-plots. The first concerns a black wet-nurse, Elizabeth (Mariam Barry, playing the character's suffering of numerous racist slights with just the right mix of dignity and quietly contained rage), hired to tend to the Givings' baby. The second involves a worldly painter, Leo Irving (Francis Winter), who has come to Dr. Givings for his own treatment for male hysteria (cue the vibrating anal probe). Catherine and Leo enjoy a brief flirtation that succeeds in arousing the jealousy of Dr. Givings; however, Leo only has eyes for Elizabeth. All of this culminates in a clumsy denouement that leaves no one happy except the white bourgeois heterosexual professional couple, who rediscover their passion for each other (and, it turns out, the sudden obsolescence of Dr. Givings' machine) by making love in the snow. To be sure, in this scene it is Catherine who takes control of the lovemaking, undressing her husband and making his nude body an object of erotic display. But the fact that she ends up on top in the play's concluding tableau does not, to my mind, make up for the fact that earlier in the second act the same-sex possibilities that Ruhl telegraphs in Mrs. Daldry and Annie's one shared kiss are shut down immediately and with absolute finality as soon as the two women break off from their lip-lock: "I don't suppose I shall ever see you again," Mrs. Daldry states to Annie as she moves with purpose towards the door. Similarly, the implicit critique of white liberal feminism that Ruhl seems to be embedding in her script via her suggestion that first wave suffrage in America depended on the labour of black women's bodies gets muddied by having the relationship between Catherine and Elizabeth triangulated through a man, and a rather caricatured cad at that.
I should emphasize that I see these problems as intrinsic to the structure of the play, not as symptomatic of specific choices made in this production. Indeed, given my misgivings (forgive the pun) about the play's politics, I think that Forsyth has done a remarkable job in spotlighting multiple connections between the women characters in particular, ones that suggest possible alternative outcomes for them all. On the topic of lighting, however, the dimming and raising of the lights every time Catherine turned off or on her newfangled electric lamp drove me a bit batty. As did the rickety door between the living room and Dr. Givings' operating theatre. However, Julie White's costumes were a marvel of period detail. Indeed, the successive scenes of Mrs. Daldry undressing and dressing with Annie's assistance before and after her treatments distilled for me into a wordless pantomime much that this play was trying to say about female repression and empowerment.