Theatre review: In The Next Room, or, The Vibrator Play

 

 

 

 

 

So I went to this play about three weeks ago, and it was SO GOOD that I went back again last night. And I’m planning to go again a couple more times before the run ends December 16, bringing various lady friends and (when he finishes the production run of Escape to Margaritaville, also a winner, see my next post!) my darling husband.

This play by Sarah Ruhl has been around for a while. You know that moment in “When Harry Met Sally” with Meg Ryan in the diner…yeah that one…and the scene in “Menopause the Musical” where the celebrity guest actress gives samples of her orgasm sound effects…yeah that one…well, there’s a whole lot of that going on here.

There’s unlimited hilarity and a few weepy moments, sweet romance and abortive romance-gone-wrong, and history of the vibrator. Also, excellent treatment of marital relations on every level. And watching Victorians undress and dress.

I’d go into the long and appalling and fascinating histories of female hysteria and vibrators and all that, but you can look at Wikipedia instead.

What I find captivating is the central character of the story, the wife of the doctor who invented the vibrator. She’s a free spirit, younger at heart than her husband (and possibly in years – this could be a casting choice), unspoiled by Victorian mores, avid for sensation, childishly impulsive and empathic, and very much not crushed by her know-it-all Victorian husband.

I’m also especially delighted with the historically precise handling of class, gender, and race relations between characters.

We see the lady patient and her husband, who are socially on a par with the doctor and his wife.

We see the husbands talking over their wives’ heads in their presences, establishing the gender power differential.

We see the nurse, who is extraordinarily well-educated (reads Greek), addressed by all by her first name, both a medical professional and an upper servant. She administers with exquisite sensitivity and professional detachment the stimulation of paroxysm of the womb, both via vibrator and manually; delicately borrows the doctor’s power as she undresses his patients; and embodies dignified and detached subservience as she re-dresses them at the end of treatment.

We see the doctor and his patient’s husband arranging for the hire of the patient’s housekeeper as wet nurse to the doctor’s infant daughter, over the heads of the ladies involved, and coolly colluding to fix the wet nurse’s wages so that she won’t be tempted to leave her main service.

We see the doctor and his wife discussing how suitable the wet nurse may be, even though she’s a “darky,” based on her marital status, her motherhood of other children, and her churchgoing habits.

We see the doctor examining the wet nurse (yes, portrayed by a “darky”) physically for venereal disease and other disease, and her emotional discomfort and poise during this intrusion by a potential employer.

We see the wet nurse negotiating the class distinction between herself and all her employers. In fact, the wet nurse is the employee of every other character in the play barring the nurse, for she’s housekeeper to the patient, wet nurse to the doctor’s infant, and eventually a model for another patient, an artist who pays to paint the wet nurse with the doctor’s infant. Her outward humility and inner strength in these situations illustrate racial and class issues in action. (In fact, the painter falls in love with her. She is the one who makes the only correct and socially acceptable decision. In the play, in every instance of people stepping outside their assigned social roles, it is the person of higher class who transgresses, and the person of subordinate class who must remind them of their place, and of their subordinate’s place, and do so without giving offense.)

We see the patient becoming infatuated with the nurse, whose touch is more welcome to her than the doctor’s (or her husband’s). We see the nurse managing their social distinction and the professional barrier between them, all while falling in love with the patient.

We see the patient’s husband become infatuated with the doctor’s wife, and the doctor’s wife with the painter. Their peculiar Victorian pruderies and social usages are exactly, perfectly presented.

Sad to say, I don’t see this much historical accuracy in 99% of the romances I read, although I love historical romance.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction you should see this play. If you’re a woman who has learned her way around her own body under less than optimal circumstances, or taught a man, you should see this play. If you’re a student of feminism, medicine, or sociology, you should see this play. If you need a laugh and can laugh at lengthy (and I assure you prudishly veiled) performances of hysteria cure in women and men, you should see this play. If you love steampunk for the finicky social rules, the language, the clothes, and clank, you should see this play.

But see it quick. “In The Next Room” closes December 16.

Staged by Timeline Theatre
by Sarah Ruhl
directed by Mechelle Moe
October 20 – December 16, 2017
at Stage 773
1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, IL
Tickets available at 773.281.8463 extension 6

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Theatre review: In The Next Room, or, The Vibrator Play — 1 Comment