The buzz about In the Next Room

Emily Gunyou Halaas and Christina Baldwin try a new cure for female "hysteria"
Michal Daniel

From the golden frames that surround the proscenium at the Jungle Theater to the equally gilded curtain hiding the set, the stage before the start of In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) resembles a box of candy, ready to be opened for numerous delights.

Or maybe that should be a box of lingerie. Once the stage lights hit the curtain, it turns out to be sheer, giving us a peek at the set behind before it finally draws up to reveal the overstuffed but comfortable Victorian parlor. Sarah Ruhl's play is like that, peeling back the layers that trap characters behind expectations about their roles and misunderstandings about physical pleasure. It's a terrific show that gets a commanding interpretation at the Jungle, with wonderful performances from beginning to end and vivid, insightful direction from Sarah Rasmussen.

The parlor, it turns out, is in a home outside of New York City in the late 19th century. The home is owned by Dr. Givings and his wife, Catherine. He specializes in women's issues, especially those surrounding "hysteria." And he uses Edison's newfangled electricity to help his practice, employing an early vibrator — it resembles something you might find in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory — to release the tension.

Givings is Spock-like (the Vulcan, not the baby doctor) in his practice and with his wife: not so much cold as distant. Catherine, on the other hand, is desperate for contact, and she begins to befriend some of the patients. She secretly experiments with the vibrator with another patient, Sabrina, and finds herself ensnared by a rare male patient, the soulful painter Leo.

While it can be easy to snicker at the endless corsets the ladies are forced to wear or the "science" that is only a bit removed from leeching blood, Ruhl is also slyly commenting on our modern-day world. After all, if serious candidates for national office can talk about "legitimate" rape and how a pregnancy cannot occur when that happens — well, it seems as if the mental corsets are still there.

All these issues offer plenty of challenges for the actors, who dive headfirst into the material and their characters. It would be easy to just play to the script's laughs — there are plenty, especially in the first act and a half — but all of them reach for the emotional depths of the script. That ranges from Christina Baldwin and John Middleton as the Givingses to Emily Gunyou Halaas and Ryan Underbakke as patients to Annie Enneking as the good doctor's assistant, who is as interested in experimentation as her employer and the ladies around her.

Contrasting this is Austene Van, who plays Elizabeth, the African-American wet nurse for the Givingses' child. She is haunted by the death of her infant son, and she provides a number of penetrating moments as she talks freely about her emotions, a rarity in this household.

While Ruhl's script seems to lose its way at times in the second act, it rights itself and leads into a beautiful coda. I won't spoil the surprise, but the moment provides one of the most startling onstage transformations I've seen this year, as all the restrictions melt away into something absolutely beautiful.

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