Theater & Dance
Review
"In the Next Room, or, The Vibrator Play"

By: Sarah Ruhl
Produced by: Betsy Kruse Craig, The Pear Theatre
Directed by: Caroline Clark
Featuring: Stephanie Crowley, April Culver, Brad Satterwhite, Ellen Dunphy, Troy Johnson, Damaris Divito, James Lewis
Running time: 150 minutes, one intermission
When: September 8 through October 1, 2017
Where: The Pear Theatre, 1110 la Avenida Street, Mountain View
Tickets: $10-$35 (discounts available). Visit www.thepear.org or call 650-254-1148.

Dunphy, Crowley, Satterwhite
Michael Craig / Pear Theatre
Ellen Dunphy, as Mrs. Daldry, reacts to the medical treatment administered by Brad Satterwhite as Dr. Givings. Stephanie Crowley, as Annie, observes in Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room, or, The Vibrator Play," at The Pear Theatre, September 8 through October 1, 2017.
Good, good, good vibrations
available 'In the Next Room'
Pear Theatre in Mountain View opens season
with Sarah Ruhl's perceptive, funny play
September 11, 2017

Dr. Givings is very excited about his new medical device, an electric vibrator, which he is successfully using to give women suffering from "hysteria" what he calls "paroxysms."

These days, we call them "orgasms," and they don't come as a surprise to most adult women.

But in America of the 1890s and early 1900s, middle class women apparently didn't know about sex as pleasure. They wore tight corsets in daytime and at night dutifully assumed the missionary position and lay quiet as their husbands did the deed.

Poor Mrs. Daldrey, played with skill by beautiful Ellen Dunphy in The Pear Theatre's excellent production of Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room, or, The Vibrator Play," is brought to Dr. Givings by her husband because she is very sensitive to sound and light. She tells Dr. Givings — played with social reserve and enthusiasm for science by Brad Satterwhite — that her mother washed the curtains every week.

But, she says, she doesn't have the strength to do that — she is too weak to "beat the ghosts out of them."

After she strips off several layers of clothing in the titular next room — but still clad in more clothes than a modern 8th grader wears to school — she lays back on an examination table, and Dr. Givings applies the medical device, under a sheet for modesty's sake.

He is babbling excitedly about such things as Edison electrocuting an elephant, but Mrs. Daldry only has awareness of what is happening between her legs, wiggling her shoe-clad feet and crying out, "Oh, God!"

Her paroxysm, says Dr. Giving, "will bring the juices down" from where they had become congested. Indeed, wetness is often experienced after the treatment.

Daily treatment will be needed, says the good doctor, and Mrs. Daldry readily agrees.

Meanwhile, the doctor's own beautiful young wife, Catherine, played with considerable range and skill by April Culver, has her own frustrations. She has a young baby, but her breasts aren't producing enough milk, and the baby isn't latching on. She is bored by her life, and feels that she is a failure as a woman.

And she is not allowed in the next room, because Dr. Givings assumes there is nothing wrong with his wife.

Mr. Daldry — who is politely quiet when he comes to her bedroom at night, says Mrs. Daldry — offers up his maid, Elizabeth, to serve as wet nurse. She'd lost her baby, but has milk to spare, says the patronizing but gentle Mr. Daldry (played with sympathy by Troy Johnson).

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Yes, Elizabeth is black, but of the right faith. Wouldn't they "rather have a negro Protestant instead of a Catholic Irishwoman?"

When Elizabeth arrives, Mrs. Givings takes it as another item of proof that she is inadequate as a woman. Her baby latches on to Elizabeth right away, feeds with gusto, and is soon staring lovingly at the woman who is sustaining her.

Ignored by her husband, locked out of "the other room" and feeling defeated as a mother, Mrs. Givings doesn't give up, but fights back — she gets into the other room, experiences a "paroxysm," and with Mrs. Daldry, tries to figure out what is happening to them with the "treatment."

That's when they seek advice from Elizabeth, who has two surviving children, and a less-protected life experience. Elizabeth listens to their odd explanations of what their bodies experienced, and finally says it sounds like what a woman feels when she loves with her husband.

That idea comes as a shock to the two ladies.

Damaris Divito is excellent as Elizabeth, who has her own sad emotional arc to traverse. Her baby was 12 weeks old when he died, and she is still heartbroken, but agrees to the wet-nurse job anyway.

Divito, who on her own beams with light and charm and beauty, looks much older and beaten down as Elizabeth, thanks to acting and makeup. She is doubtful and careful, as a black person, even in New York, might well be only about 30 years after the Civil War. Her light Southern accent is excellent.

Another fine performance is by Stephanie Crowley, as Annie, nurse to Dr. Givings. She's competent but unassuming, and when the electricity goes out and she gives the treatment to Mrs. Daldry "manually," it is a sea-change moment for them both, which adds to the tapestry of emotional arcs in this fine play.

This is a script by the brilliant Sarah Ruhl, so clever dialogue, jokes and observations are sprinkled throughout.

Into this busy household comes another of Dr. Givings' patients, Leo Irving, a British artist who is trying to recover from the heartache of having been dumped by an Italian woman he loved.

"Hysteria is very rare for a man," says Dr. Givings, "but then again, he is an artist."

For men, Dr. Givings has a phallic device connected to a treadle device that looks like it'd been salvaged from an old treadle-run sewing machine.

James Lewis is excellent as Leo, thrashing about on the examination table as he is penetrated — under the sheet — by the violent device.

I've had three or four prostate exams, and hated every moment of them; watching Lewis seemingly in pain brought back unpleasant memories, indeed.

But the treatment seems to help him, and once he meets Mrs. Givings and Elizabeth, his creativity begins to flow again, and he asks Elizabeth to pose for him, as a modern Madonna.

Lewis gives an appealing performance as Leo introduces the lonely Mrs. Givings to the beauty of his romantic vision, pointing out the loveliness of neighbors' lights coming on at dusk, and when Dr. Givings sees Mrs. Givings softly touching Leo's cheek, the monster of jealousy rises in him, and he — eventually — is forced to come to grips with what a bad husband he's been. Is it too late for him? Here's a clue: Mrs. Givings is not to be denied. Once awakened, she is a powerhouse. Culver is excellent in bringing that character arc to life.

This is a fine production, directed with excellence by Caroline Clark, and solid support from producer Betsy Kruse Craig. This is the first production of the season for The Pear, and the first for Kruse Craig's tenure as The Pear's artistic director.

Norm Beamer and Clark did a lovely job with the set, and Kathleen O'Brien produced fabulous costumes.

So, why do a show built around middle-class sexual mores of the Victorian Age in a time of internet porn and MGOs? (Mutually Guaranteed Orgasms.)

I think it's a timeless reminder that in a relationship, we need to pay attention to each other, and pay attention to each other's needs.

Email John Orr at johnorr@regardingarts.com

April Culver
Michael Craig / Pear Theatre
April Culver, as Mrs. Givings, wants to know what's going on in the next room, in Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room, or, The Vibrator Play," at The Pear Theatre, September 8 through October 1, 2017.
Divito, Culver
Michael Craig / Pear Theatre
Damaris Divito as Elizabeth, left, has a heart-to-heart with April Culver as Catherine Givings in Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room, or, The Vibrator Play," at The Pear Theatre, September 8 through October 1, 2017.
Culver, Lewis, Dunphy, Satterwhite, Crowley
Michael Craig / Pear Theatre
April Culver, as Mrs. Givings, is fascinated by the artistic observations of James Lewis as Leo Irving in Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room, or, The Vibrator Play," at The Pear Theatre, September 8 through October 1, 2017. In the background, Ellen Dunphy, as Mrs. Daldry, receives treatment from Brad Satterwhite as Dr. Givings and Stephanie Crowley as Annie.
Crowley, Dunphy
Michael Craig / Pear Theatre
Stephanie Crowley as Annie, left, listens to Ellen Dunphy as Mrs. Daldry play the piano in Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room, or, The Vibrator Play," at The Pear Theatre, September 8 through October 1, 2017.
Satterwhite, Crowley, Dunphy, Johnson
Michael Craig / Pear Theatre
Brad Satterwhite as Dr. Givings, and Stephanie Crowley as Annie hear Ellen Dunphy as Mrs. Daldry recite her ailments, with help from Troy Johnson as Mr. Daldry, from left, in Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room, or, The Vibrator Play," at The Pear Theatre, September 8 through October 1, 2017.


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