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By Michael H. Margolin
Sarah Ruhl’s infinitely clever “In the Next Room or the vibrator play,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, is being given an affecting production at Performance Network in Ann Arbor.
In 1880s America, at the dawn of electricity, Dr. Givings (John Seibert) has invented a device to treat hysteria in women: the vibrator. In his office, the next room of the title and sharing half the stage with his living room, he treats women, with the aid of his assistant, Annie (Milica Govich), by slipping his electronic device. Like his line about electricity, as he manipulates that little light switch and gleefully intones, “on, off” he has “the touch.”
His primary patient is Sabrina Daldrey (Leslie Hull), and it is dramatically liberating as she experiences aloud, in response to clitoral stimulation, the repressed feelings that her block of a husband, Mr. Daldry (Rusty Mewha), has been unable to. Whoo, hoo! In Act II, he treats artist Leo Irving (Hazen Cuyler) with a huge electronic rod (“It looks like a farm implement”) by massaging his prostate.
In both cases, the treatment goes swimmingly, but soon, the treatment overflows into the living room, where the doctor’s wife, Catherine (Aphrodite Nikolovski), is suffering from her own demons: mostly, that she hasn’t enough milk for her newborn daughter and must bring in a wet nurse, Elizabeth (Carollette Phillips), whose third son, Henry, died at 12 weeks from cholera.
But as she listens at the door of her husband’s operating room to the orgasmic pleasure of the patients, she grows impatient. What is going on, and how can she get a piece of the action?
When the doctor is away, the wives will play – and Sabrina and Catherine use the electric device to pleasure themselves. Once that happens, Catherine is able to confront her un’Givings’ doctor-husband, demanding treatment, and when he succumbs to her requests she asks him to cross the line and pleasure her with his machine – and kisses.
The play, like the title, is metaphoric and often ironic: Language is elegant, sometimes very funny, sometimes – as when the wet nurse speaks of the living child she suckles and the anger she feels that her own is dead – soul-baring.
The playwright has crammed her script with language and ideas that exist, like the rooms, separately and together. The doctor, for example, speaks of when he was a child and stroked the family cat, causing sparks: Warned that it could cause a fire, he suppressed the behavior; as a doctor, in the name of science, he causes emotional sparks by massaging the pussy in a different way. And different sparks fly.
Other complications ensue as the strength of sexual feeling is unleashed, and each character, in turn, is affected and acts on it. Finally the cool, scientific doctor is seduced by his wife and allows himself to be undressed, viewed and seduced by a human, not an animal, not a machine.
Suzi Regan, a consummate actress seen on many Michigan stages (and in many aspects of productions, behind the scenes) has directed with sureness and great vigor. When she has Catherine Givings listen at the door of the next room, there is placement of the actress that reveals her curiosity and her sensuality. Nice moves.
Regan has seen the farcical elements in the play and used them to the fullest: doors are never closed, but shut with a slam; the doorbell doesn’t ring, it fairly screams; in one moment of the treatment, Sabrina is half falling off the exam table in an exaggerated parody worthy of a painting by Rubens.
And her casting is pitch perfect.
Siebert uses his body English and his facial expressions to the maximum, conveying the ironic gulf between his capacity to create passionate response in patients but not for himself or his wife. Nikolovski comes gloriously to life as she engages her deeper urges, a lovely performance. Hull is both restrained, shy and then buoyant as the woman who learns about her body part.
As the artist pining for an Italian lover, Cuyler is fiendishly morose and then impassioned, flinging himself into his lines and out the other end; Mewha is all buttoned up and believable as a Victorian male who suddenly bursts out of the winter of his discontent.
Phillips plays Elizabeth with a homely charm and honest sentiment; Govich is strong, unambiguous, a nurse for all seasons. Oh, well, except for kissing the patient.
The handsome, effective set and the wonderful costumes are by Monika Essen, who turned the physical space in Performance Network’s “Red” just a few weeks ago into a palpable character. Carla Milarch’s excellent sound design made use of apt violin music (not credited as far as I could see in the program) and Mary Cole’s lighting design was on the mark.
Crammed with ideas about the domination of women, never condescending to any of our foibles as humans, quirky and, finally, touching, this play in this production is a must see and thanks to support from Jeff Spindler and the Arbor Brewing Company, let’s lift one for “The Vibrator Play.”
‘In the Next Room or the vibrator play’
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Thursday-Sunday through July 15. 140 minutes. $25-$41. 734-663-0681. http://www.PerformanceNetwork.org