It’s not immediately apparent what kind of show In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play is going to be. Will it meld bawdy humor with Victorian-era settings to create a kind of incongruously ironic comedy? Will it plumb the depths of male ignorance to craft a scathing satire about female sexuality? The answer is somewhere tangent to both, as In the Next Room ends up being a rather sweet play, and yet unafraid to explore a variety of approaches while getting there, with moments that are broadly comic and others that are quietly heartbreaking.
Nominated for three Tonys, including best play, in 2010, Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room is on stage at Seattle’s ACT Theatre through August 28. The play takes place in the house of Dr. Givings (Jeff Cummings), who runs a practice out of his home. He specializes in treating female hysteria, a nebulous classification for what we now recognize as mostly sexual frustration, and the recent advent of electricity has made for great advances in the field.
Rather than the previous method of manual stimulation, it’s a vibrating instrument that allows Givings to give his patients “paroxysms” — not a sexual act, mind you; merely a medical procedure to drain excess fluid from the womb.
Givings’ wife Catherine (Jennifer Sue Johnson) eavesdrops curiously as her husband has great success treating the miserable Sabrina Daldry (Deborah King), and Catherine wonders what it would be like to experience the device.
Meanwhile, she struggles with her inability to nurse her newborn child, leading to the hiring of a nursemaid, Elizabeth (Tracy Michelle Hughes), a black woman who has recently lost her own child. Not helping matters is her husband’s cold, clinical manner that extends beyond the operating room.
Ruhl gets a lot of mileage out of the character of Catherine, placing her at the center of a storm of conflicting ideas and paradigm shifts. Her old-fashioned ways of thinking, from ingrained racial prejudice to one-sided views about sex are shed as the play progresses, but she continues to struggle personally, substituting flirtation with a young artist (Connor Toms) for working things out with her husband.
There’s real emotional turmoil mixed in with the simulated orgasms and double entendres, and it’s to Ruhl’s credit that In the Next Room feels like a cohesive work and pulls off the tonal fluctuations.
Johnson is good as the flighty, excitable Catherine, even if the character can become rather grating. Cummings proves a wry foil, acting as the supremely calm and measured counterpoint.
It’s Hughes who turns in the show’s best performance, though, in a small, unshowy role that sees her carefully guarding her emotion up until an immensely moving monologue near the play’s end about the pain of loss.
Artistic director Kurt Beattie keeps all the balls in the air with his direction, as the play often exists on two planes — what’s happening inside the operating room and what’s happening outside of it. As per usual, Matthew Smucker’s scenic design is exquisitely detailed and creates a real sense of distinct space between the two locations even though they sit right next to one another.
In the Next Room smartly refuses to pigeonhole itself into one kind of play, respectfully and honestly exploring the complexities of emotional and sexual dissatisfaction.
Tickets for the show are available at ACT’s website.