My reception of Sarah Ruhl’s In The Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) is surely influenced by having blundered into the wrong theatre. Have you heard that theatre is dead? You will not believe it if you attend the beehive of plays currently opening in four theatres at Atwater Theatre Complex. Pre-show crowds congregate in the courtyard, swapping stories of their latest conquests. After all, these are mostly 20 and 30-somethings, some tied to the industry, others, friends of friends, but all intent on going to a good live event.
In Atwater’s theatre on the right, Jan Monroe’s opulent set, Sarah Schwartz’ subtle lighting design, and Mylette Nora’s wonderful period costumes propel us back to another time of endless possibility — the 1880s, and the invention of electricity. Playwright Sarah Ruhl unearthed the arcane history of Hysteria, courtesy of Sigmund Freud, a unique malady among women that was common in the late 19th century. Talk about the oppressed!
While it might be interesting to unpack Freud’s findings at this point, it’s far more instructive to see how Ms. Ruhl treated this information. She introduces us to a prosperous doctor and his wife, who has just birthed their first child. Dr. Givings (Spensor Cantrell) seems to expend all his energy on his new creation, a wand guaranteed to give relief to hysterical women. Catherine Givings (Dionna Veremis), on the contrary, is relegated to tending her newborn, with diminishing success.
Due to the doctor’s new discovery, a parade of new patients descends on the home examination room, spotlighting the Givings’ marital problems, while the doctor tries to solve others. It’s a fascinating la ronde, in which Dr. Givings wields his vibrating discovery with not slightest notion about why it is working.
Ruhl allows the Daldrys (Stephanie Crothers and Christopher Carver, respectively), a contrasting family, to offer a focal point for the Givings’ problems. Mrs. Daldry solves Catherine’s inability to nurse by offering up her servant, Elizabeth (Monazia Smith), whose baby has died, as a wet-nurse. Another patient, the newly revitalized Leo Irving (Bryan Bertone), offers art lessons and more to the household after his miraculous recovery.
The first act exhibits an exuberance that both reveals and masks the underlying Victorian mores that created the situation in the first place. Women are still chattel; homosexuality is unrecognized; and the patriarchal system has created a world where only men can entertain their own appetites.
While billed as a comedy, led by director Lane Allison, this Open Fist production is exuberantly earnest instead. On the night I attended, the audience sat with rapt attention to the zeal exhibited by these electronic pioneers. While Act One is notable for laying out the situation, I feel the only notable contribution to Ruhl’s thesis in Act Two concerns the story line for the doctor’s long serving assistant, Annie (a wonderful turn by Jennifer Zorbalas), who shows that she cannot remain dispassionate in her feelings for Mrs. Daldry who has been in her care.
Otherwise, Act Two descends into a bit of soft porn as the characters take turns titillating each other. I say this because I noticed that the young man sitting near me was having a hard time sitting still as the kaleidoscope of pairings progressed.
Some critics have decried the fact that Ruhl has not tackled non-binary or trans-gendered sexuality in this play. Instead, I take her play as a way for us to realize how much has changed in our understanding of sexuality in the last 100 years or more. Open Fist’s pretty production demonstrates that we have, indeed, come a long way!
In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play runs through April 23, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 6 p.m. General admission is $25, with $15 tickets available to students, Seniors and veterans with valid ID. (NOTE: proof of vaccinations is necessary and wearing masks is required.) Atwater Village Theatre is located at 3269 Casitas Ave in Los Angeles, CA 90039. Parking is free is in the ATX (Atwater Crossing) parking lot one block south of the theater. For reservations and information, call (323) 882-6912 or online at www.openfist.org