And now we take a pause from our Caribbean carousal for a little night amusement. The cruise chronicle will return tomorrow with a visit to the island of St. Kitts.
In Victorian America, a world colored by inequality, social repression and budding industrialism, is it proper to assume that mechanical energy, specifically electricity, can successfully replace human intimacy?
The answer, of course, is no, and that denial lies at the heart of “In the Next Room or the vibrator play,” Pulitzer Prize nominee Sarah Ruhl’s 2009 comedy that is Forward Theater Co.’s latest production. The play opened Nov. 5 at The Playhouse in Overture Center, and judging from the surprisingly large Nov. 12 audience, Madison has been as hungry for professional theater as the characters in Ruhl’s play are for intimacy. Either that, or maybe it’s just all the – ahem – “buzz” – generated by the play’s subject matter that attracted a nearly full house.
The story, in short, goes like this. Dr. Givings (Mark Ulrich) applies medical treatment to women – and, in one case, a man – suffering from stress, anxiety and hysteria by using a wonderful new electrical vibrating device that helps relieve the pressure of water buildup in the womb – or in the man’s case, provides a necessary massage of the prostate gland. The vibrating device induces “paroxysms” which “restore balance” to his patients in such degree that you almost expect them to lie back with a cigarette and cuddle with the bulky, boxlike machine.
The fly in the lubricant here is that despite releasing his patients from one of the key rigors of Victorian society, the doctor himself is aloof, preoccupied and repressed, something noted only too often by his wife Catherine (Jessica Bess Lanius), a free-spirited youthful bride who suffers from a lack of the same intimacy that her husband’s patients learn to cherish. But love conquers all, including the vibrator, in a charming denouement notable more for its delicacy than its indulgence.
The play’s humor, focused mostly on the vibrator treatment sessions viewed through an invisible wall in scenic designer Frank Schneeberger’s impressive set, is kind-spirited, but eventually predictable. The same equipment that gives patients like Mrs. Daldry (Karen Moeller) repeated relief does not have the same effect on Catherine, which sets the wheels spinning for the play’s anticipated outcome.
As might be expected, Ruhl tells her tale from a woman’s point of view, with two of the three male characters – Givings and Mr. Daldry (Richard Ganoung) – serving as the faces of the repressive society. The playwright skips gingerly through a number of intertwining scenarios, but doesn’t dig particularly deep into either her characters’ psyches or the social problems of the day. With rare exception, if a problem can’t be fixed by the vibrator, it doesn’t get much mention.
Director Jennifer Uphoff Gray – also Forward Theater’s artistic director – puts her cast through a sprightly pace, which helps propel the 138-minute production. No characterizations falter and several (Ulrich and Lanius, most notably) shine.
Perhaps the best news is that professional theater has returned to Madison, and that Forward Theater Co. appears to have a long, artistically fruitful and perhaps even financially profitable life ahead of it. And that’s a balance that was definitely in need of restoring.