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“In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play” - Ladue News: Arts & Entertainment

“In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play”

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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Posted: Tuesday, March 15, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 10:48 pm, Tue Aug 9, 2011.

Play:        “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play”

Group:        Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Venue:        Emerson Studio Theatre, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road

Dates:        Through March 27

Tickets:    $44-$56; contact 314-968-4925 or www.repstl.org

Story:    Dr. Givings is a prosperous physician in the state of New York, circa 1880.  An admirer of Thomas Edison, he welcomes the advent of electricity as the herald of an exciting new world that will benefit the patients whom he treats for “hysteria.”  Dr. Givings sees hysteria as a condition primarily afflicting women, and is hopeful that his invention, a machine that touches a woman in sensitive areas, will alleviate the symptoms.  With the assistance of his nurse Annie, he immerses himself in his work with a particularly troubled patient, wealthy Sabrina Daldry, whose husband is concerned about her emotional instability.

Dr. Givings is delighted to see Sabrina respond to his treatments, improving her “sensitivity to light and cold,” but fails to notice the increasing frustrations of his own wife, Catherine.  The latter is unhappy at Dr. Givings’ insistence that the Daldry maid, Elizabeth, nurse their own child, saying that Catherine’s milk is insufficient.  Curious about the effect of his new machine, she convinces Sabrina to let her experience its effects as well. Inspired by the impact of the machine as well as her attraction to Leo, an artist patient of Dr. Givings, Catherine seeks emotional outlets from her stifling marriage to her clinical husband.

Highlights:    Playwright Sarah Ruhl’s two-act drama was nominated for a Tony Award in 2010 for Best Play and also was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  It’s easy to see why, based both on Ruhl’s incisive and multi-leveled script and the superior production crafted by director Stuart Carden for The Rep.  Ruhl’s split title refers both to the “operating theater” where Dr. Givings tends to his patients adjacent to the handsome parlor in his home, as well as the mechanical device that does exactly what you suspect it does for his patients.  Carden guides a septet of players who measure their performances expertly in a presentation that is brisk, engaging and ever developing, a richly layered and rewarding triumph that provokes and challenges throughout.

Other Info:    One of the strengths of this presentation is the consistently splendid effort by the entire ensemble.  Every player contributes to the impact of Ruhl’s thoughtful work, which shows us the impact of Victorian society’s hands-off approach to sex in general and the subjugation or casual ignoring of women in particular.  Additionally, it’s fascinating to watch each of Ruhl’s characters develop and reveal elements of their own personalities and beliefs that add depth and dimension to the finely woven tapestry of the script.

    St. Louis native Annie Purcell leads the impressive cast with a finely wrought portrayal of the young and inquisitive Catherine.  Purcell distills Catherine’s love and yearnings for fulfillment into a beguiling character who liberates dormant feelings considered excessive in her repressive society.  She conveys Catherine’s curiosities and desires in ways that challenge other characters as well as herself.

    Ron Bohmer shows us Dr. Givings’ genteel manners as well as his oblivious reactions to his wife’s frustrations, saving his own exuberance for rapturous discussions of the electrical experiments of “Mr. Edison” and “Mr. Franklin,” only begrudgingly admitting to such feelings as jealousy and anger.  David Christopher Wells adds an extra dimension to proceedings as a lusty artist whose supposed bohemian temperament may not be as rebellious as first perceived.

    Krystel Lucas offers a splendid turn as the servant Elizabeth, whose own experiences with death, sexuality and the very essence of life is superior to that of the upper-class ladies.  Emily Dorsch provides a rich interpretation of the troubled Mrs. Daldry, a timid woman who carefully reveals her own thoughts, and artistic abilities, to the inquiring Catherine, while Amy Landon makes optimal use of the relatively small part of Annie by judiciously mining the hidden possibilities in her quiet character.  Michael James Reed completes the cast as the somewhat stereotypical representation of the powerful patriarchy of the era as Mr. Daldry.

    Gianni Downs contributes to the effect and impact of the work with a sumptuous set that describes both Dr. Givings’ brightly illuminated operating room as well as the handsomely appointed living area.  Mark Wilson’s lighting nicely contrasts the warmth of the parlor with the sterilized atmosphere of the work space, while Dorothy Marshall Englis adorns each character with garb that represents their respective places in 19th century society.  Sound designer and composer Mikhail Fiksel supports the proceedings with background effects that enhance everything.

    Despite an ending that is unnecessarily drawn out, Ruhl’s lively and intelligent work is satisfying on a number of levels.

Rating:    A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

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