There are some plays where it's very easy to know exactly what you're going to get going into them. If it's a farce you know you're going to get some broad belly laughs and a goofy, convoluted story. But with Sara Ruhl's "In the Next Room"—known less formally as The Vibrator Play, everything I knew about the show contradicted itself.
I knew the show was focused on the early days of the vibrator and that it also was nominated for three Tony Awards, a Drama Desk award and the Pulitzer Prize. Going into it, I expected something more like a broad comedy that had some heavy thematic weight, but instead got one of the finest theatrical productions I have seen in a long time.
The show takes place in a spa town in the late 18th century during the dawn of electricity. Catherine Givings lives with her husband, Dr. Givings, in their beautiful palatial estate, where he also treats women (and a man or two) for hysteria. He does this by using a giant, newfangled vibrator to give them orgasms, under the scientific premise that he is releasing pent-up fluid from their wombs.
Catherine Givings has a newborn child and can't produce enough milk for the baby. She becomes more lonely and depressed as her child grows attached to the wet nurse more than its own mother. She sees women (and a male artist) come out of her husband's operating theater in the next room lighter and happier than they were upon arrival. She begins to wonder why her husband can help others with their "hysteria," but leaves his wife to become more agitated, upset and alone.
While there are a few huge laughs throughout the show, the humor is darker than I expected. Each character in the show is unhappy in his or her own way and the humor is borne out of that darkness and depression. It's comedy that comes out of tragedy and sadness, which can sometimes be the most profound way we're allowed to laugh in the theater. I found myself wondering several times whether laughing as loudly as I wanted to would make me a bad person.
There's so much going on with this show it's hard to even know where to start. There's a focus on sex positivity and exploration of the senses. There's a subplot about motherhood and the mental gymnastics we employ to keep ourselves happy. A huge piece of the play is about loneliness, loss and isolation as we move through life trying to put one foot in front of the other. All of these big ideas never feel at war with each other, but instead make every encounter between characters fraught with meaning and importance.
Prairie Cletas Emrich is astounding as Catherine Givings. She modulates the performance in such a way that the audience can see her start the show as someone unaccustomed to focusing on her own internal struggles. We then follow her through every possible stage of emotion. This could have been a histrionic performance filled with grand, sweeping gestures and breast beating depression, but instead Emrich finds a warm center to act from and gives every word its own importance.
Makenzie Whittle is also wonderful as Sabrina Daldry, one of the good doctor's patients. She comes into his office in a black veil, too upset to live and leaves with rosy cheeks and a giggling new lease on life. Whittle makes this transformation not only believable but stunning to watch.
David DaCosta puts a subtle grace into Dr. Givings. Bruce Moon adds a slimy charm to Mr. Daldry. Christine Thompson manifests exquisite heartbreak as Annie, the doctor's assistant. John Cobbs has charisma to spare as the artist Leo Irving. As good as they all are, it's A. Lynn Jesus who broke my heart as the wet nurse Elizabeth.
Elizabeth has just lost a child, so she has milk to spare and no child to give it to. Late in the play she has a monologue about her loss and how she lives and moves past it. It absolutely wrecked me. It's beautifully written, superbly acted and one of the finest moments I've seen on stage for quite some time.
"In the Next Room" is a play that demands to be seen. It is a wonderful piece of theater, from director Sandy Silver's impeccable staging to Shawn Akacich's beautiful and sumptuous costumes. Gary Loddo's set, combined with Kelley Ryan's dressing, took my breath away. A play can only be as good as its weakest link and this chain shows no sign of wear. It's a transportive and important night of theater that will be remembered for years to come.
"In the Next Room" (or The Vibrator Play)
Oct. 7-22, 7:30pm. 2pm on Sundays.
Cascades Theatrical Company, 148 NW Greenwood Ave., Bend