Monday, February 6, 2012

REVIEW: In the Next Room, or the vibrator play

Posted By on Mon, Feb 6, 2012 at 11:32 AM

When he took the reins as director of performing arts at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in June, Scott RC Levy promised to shake things up at the venerable old theater. And no play this season demonstrates his edgy sensibilities quite like In the Next Room, or the vibrator play. (Read our preview of the play here.)

Despite its titillating title, In the Next Room is not a free-wheeling sex romp or madcap farce. What it is, is a touching, historically accurate and, yes, funny costume drama set at the dawn of the electrical age, when women were just beginning to rebel against their longtime roles and physicians were experimenting with a new device promising to cure women of "hysteria."

Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2010, In the Next Room was written by Sarah Ruhl, one of the freshest voices in American theater today. Ruhl's works cover a wide range of subjects, but at their heart they all explore the distances between people and the sacrifices it takes to close those distances.

This play centers on Catherine Givings, a young wife and mother played with breezy charm by Stephanie Philo. Catherine is something of a scatterbrain, but she feels things deeply, especially the lack of attention from her husband Dr. Givings (an admirably restrained Chad Siebert). The good doctor has grown increasingly distant since her body stopped producing enough milk to feed their baby girl.

"Isn't it funny?" Catherine observes, comparing breastfeeding to the Christian practice of communion. "Jesus is a man ... but as women, it's our bodies that feed the world."

Top-notch cast, sumptuous costumes and a cheerfully humming vibrator in the background. What more does a theatergoer need? (Photo by Nathan Willers)
  • Nathan Willers
  • A top-notch cast, sumptuous costumes and a cheerfully humming vibrator in the background. What more does a theatergoer need?

Catherine hires an African-American wet nurse named Elizabeth, but this only increases her sense of isolation as the nurse, despite her initial resistance, forms a deep emotional bond with the infant. As she does in so many of her roles, Marisa Hebert plays Elizabeth with a soft-spoken intensity that only hints at layers hidden beneath.

Adding to Catherine's troubles is the fact that Dr. Givings has been finding great success with his "electric massage machine." Tightly corseted housewives step into his office feeling frustrated and depressed, but step out completely rejuvenated, enjoying a physical and emotional release that Catherine can only long for.

It would be easy to go overboard with a play like this, but Joye Cook-Levy, wife of Scott and a talented director in her own right, steers the production right down the middle, avoiding the rocks of melodrama on one side and raunch on the other.

The production is a joy to look at, with its lovingly detailed set by Christopher Sheley and sumptuous costumes by Janson Fangio. The role of props designer is overlooked in most productions, but Desarae Buza's contributions here are key, especially the boxy, cheerfully humming contraption of the title.

Ruhl's clever dialogue is delivered with a confident yet understated humor by the entire cast. Special mention goes to Max Ferguson as the struggling painter Leo, who comes to Dr. Givings for his own specialized treatment. ("Hysteria is very rare in man," Dr. Givings says about Leo, "but then, he is an artist.") Local favorite Amy Brooks also excels as Dr. Givings' loyal but conflicted assistant Annie.

My only real gripe with the production is the ending. What should have been a joyful, triumphant moment was played too subtly, and as the lights faded to black, it took the audience, unsure whether the play was over, several seconds to start applauding.

This is the first FAC production I can remember in which the cast was unmiked. I'm torn by this. On the one hand, there's nothing as distracting as microphones constantly crackling in and out, and even with a fully functioning system, the sound in the SaGaJi Theatre suffers from the less-than-ideal location of the loudspeaker high above the stage. On the other hand, it was hard to hear some of the dialogue Saturday night, and I expect it will take some time before the actors learn to fill the cavernous space.

With a play this smart, you don't want to miss a syllable.

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