“In the Next Room” an electric exploration of intimacy
The title — In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) — of the Milwaukee Rep’s latest show could scare you off.
Don’t let it. Though based on the invention of the vibrator, Next Room is far from erotic, at least in 21st century terms. This powerful play is more about the rediscovery and re-invention of love in a time where decorum had nearly abolished it.
Playwright Sarah Ruhl set In the Next Room near the end of the repressive Victorian era, in the New York home of Dr. Givings (Grant Goodman) and his wife, Catherine (Cora Vander Broek). Dr. Givings has developed a machine that can cure women of the imagined illness of hysteria, characterized by a list of catch-all symptoms recognizable to the audience as anxiety, clinical depression, or simply having and expressing emotions. But when he explains and uses his device on patients such as Sabrina Daldry (Cassandra Bissell) and rare male sufferer Leo Irving (Matthew Brumlow), it becomes clear quickly that the “paroxysms” the machine is designed to produce are orgasms.
Catherine is the lead explorer, and Vander Broek is a thrilling choice to portray her. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she is excitable and passionate, traits that only serve to make her crash painfully into the walls of Victorian morality. She is often shut out, either by her husband from his operating theater or from her newborn daughter, who requires a wet nurse, Elizabeth (Tyla Abercrumbie), to get enough milk. When Vander Broek pushes against these boundaries, her expressions flutter from a bird in a cage to a cat pressed up against the bars.
One would think Catherine could simply speak up, but director Laura Gordon and Ruhl have posited a world in which women’s words can be shaken off as meaningless. And so many words are simply taboo. Without the words to describe how a married couple should behave, how can she tell her husband she is emotionally and sexually unsatisfied? Without the words, how can Sabrina explain the difference between the nighttime, businesslike sex with her husband (Jonathan Smoots) and the thrill she gets from having Annie instead of Dr. Givings produce her “paroxysms?” Without the words, how can Dr. Givings see that his vibrator is not just medicine?
And that’s the real focus of In the Next Room. It’s not about vibrators. It’s a play about what you do when you find out that a vibrator, marriage, or love is not what you thought it was.
And watching the Rep’s cast embark on that journey—why, it’s simply electric.
The Milwaukee Rep’s production of In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) runs through April 22 at the Stiemke Studio Theater. Tickets are $40 or $30 depending on date/time, with $35/25 tickets for seniors and $20 student tickets. Visit the Rep’s website to order or for more information.
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