“Things that seem impossibly strange in the following play,” playwright Sarah Ruhl writes in her script notes for In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) “are all true – such as the Chattanooga Vibrator – and the vagaries of wet-nursing. Things that seem commonplace are all my own invention.”
This lovely marriage of facts and fancy centers on (mis)treatment of women in the 19th Century, but it has a very 21st Century sensibility to it. Perhaps that’s at the heart of why the union of ACT 1 and Actors Bridge Ensemble for a production of In the Next Room works so well – while neither picks plays from just one era, the first group is well-known for classic works while the second has largely made its reputation on contemporary fare.
It’s circa 1880s in a prosperous spa town outside of New York City (like Saratoga Springs according to the play’s notes). Dr. Givings (Michael Roark) is “a man of science” who uses the recently invented electric vibrator to cure women of “hysteria,” a catch-all diagnosis of the day. Among his patients is Mrs. Daldry (Kara McLeland), a woman whose shattered nerves and hypersensitivity to light, cold and other elements seemingly vanish after the “treatment” she receives from Givings and his nurse Annie (Ellen Lawrence). But it’s Giving’s high-strung wife Catherine (Cassie Hamilton) who really needs the unconventional TLC the flummoxed physician feels he shouldn’t provide to his nearest and dearest.
The play, which premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2009 under the direction of current Actors Theatre of Louisville Artistic Director Les Waters and went on to cop three Tony Award nominations for a Broadway run also helmed by Waters, has plenty of humor. The comedy ultimately takes aim at the absurdities in the story and not at the characters: We actually come to care about the people we meet in this play, flaws and all, which is testament to Ruhl’s writing skills and some fine performances.
Roark stepped into the role during the rehearsal process, but the veteran performer handles comedic and dramatic moments with equal aplomb. Hamilton is like a bright shooting star throughout, except that she never burns out – she shines whether the moment is happy, sad or some other emotional shade. McLeland, and Randal Cooper as her husband, do excellent jobs of revealing their character arcs – neither of the Daldrys ends up as anticipated at the first glance, and the two actors succeed in making those surprising paths believable. And McLeland (who gets credit for the show’s “Bird House Song” and the “Hysteria” composition in the video below this review) knows how to tickle the ivories as well.
Lawrence delivers one of the play’s most memorable moments when she discovers feelings she didn’t know she had. Another highlight comes through LaToya Gardner’s sensitive handling of Elizabeth, who becomes a wet nurse to the Givings’ baby daughter soon after the death of her son Henry from cholera – her speech toward the end of the play is riveting.
Last but not least is the performance of Conway Preston as free-spirited artist Leo Irving. I asked director Jessika Malone after the show if Preston was English because his accent was one of the best I’ve ever heard in a production here. No, he’s American – and very good not only with his accent work but also his acting.
B.L. Tucker’s two-room set is appropriately Victorian; so are Christen Heilman Runyon’s costumes. McLeland and dramaturge Abel Muñoz have designed sound – including musical selections from Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Puccini, Debussy and others – that complements the play’s shifting moods; Kelly Landry’s lights aid those shifts as well.
If In the Next Room is any indication, let’s hope these two troupes come together again for future shows. For now, though, their handling of Ruhl’s intimate and transformative comedy is very entertaining.
The Act 1 – Actors Bridge Ensemble production of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) runs through March 16 at Darkhorse Theater (4610 Charlotte Ave.). Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $15 and available by clicking here. This play contains mature subject matter and is not appropriate for all audiences.
*Photos by Jessika Malone courtesy Act 1 and Actors Bridge Ensemble.