Note: This review was posted on the KC Stage review system.
In the Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play), written by Sarah Ruhl; directed by Sidonie Garret. Produced by the Unicorn Theatre (Kansas City). First produced 2009. (Seen January 29, 2011.)
Much like the character of Mrs. Givings, played aptly by Cinnamon Schultz, the Unicorn’s latest production, In the Next Room, seems to not know what kind of play it is, or wants to be. Part drama, part historical, part light-hearted comedy, Sarah Ruhl’s Tony-nominated play tries to tackle too many ideas and themes for one play.
Taking place in the Victorian era just after the invention of the light bulb (“Thank you, Mr. Edison”), the basic plot is the study Dr. Givings (played by Matthew Rapport) is doing toward female hysteria, and his cure that involves the application of a device that utilizes electricity to vibrate certain muscles in the women (and the one man — ‘it’s very rare,’ says Dr. Givings, ‘but he is an artist’).
But it’s more than just what’s happening ‘in the next room’, as the doctor applies this therapy to Mrs. Daldry (played by Heidi Van). It’s about Mrs. Givings’ problems with her new child, as she’s having problems breastfeeding and this was back when a mother not being able to breastfeed was not only a scandal, but it said something about the mother’s ability to be a ‘proper’ mother. It’s also about class and race, as Mr. Daldry suggests his ‘colored’ maid, Elizabeth, to be the wet-nurse, and Mrs. Givings has obvious misgivings about the arrangement (as morals come through the milk, apparently). It’s also about how women were expected to act (and how they were treated) in this time period, as Mr. Daldry treats his wife like a child as they come for her treatments.
The sexuality isn’t just in the issues of what’s going on in the next room, as there are plenty of metaphors in the various discussions between the non-married men and women — especially in the first act.
The show was technically good. Almost all the actors were superb in their performances (my only issues was with Marion Bailey’s Elizabeth — her portrayal seemed stilted and forced). The costumer should get a gold star for not only the Victorian outerwear, but the inner-wear as well. The direction, by Sidonie Garrett, seemed spot on for the most part. And the warm reds of the set were that more effective when the last scene involving lots of blue happened.
And it’s the last scene that makes this a difficult review to write. Up until then, the show didn’t do much to move me or pull me in. Maybe the detachment was intentional — after all, the main theme is how in Victorian times especially people had to keep their distance from one another, even when (or especially when) they were married. But I had a hard time connecting with anyone outside of just as an observer.
So, I’m not quite sure what to think of the play or whether I would recommend it or not. Again, the script itself seems to want to tackle way too many themes for one night of theatre, but the actors and director and do a great job in the attempt. It felt like there was something missing in the play up until the climatic scene, where the show finally felt ‘real’ — and again, maybe that’s the intention of the play. If so, then I just didn’t get it.
In the Next Room runs until February 13, 2011. For more information, visit the Unicorn’s official website.