Dallas — Sarah Ruhl’s got a pretty good sense of humanity’s lowest common denominator. Like the kid on the playground that makes jokes at his own expense before the bullies can make them, she made the wise decision to pre-empt the inevitable title that the theater intelligentsia would attach to this work and just made it the show’s parenthetical title—“The Vibrator Play.” But as titillating as its title may make it sound, the show—forgive me—goes much deeper, and Imprint Theatreworks’ production of In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play), boasting a stellar cast and directed with tremendous sensitivity by local luminary Marianne Galloway, makes for a strong opening to its second season.
Just to set the scene, doctors and scientists of the 19th century put their minds to work at solving a truly terrible malady that had plagued women for centuries: hysteria. Although they’d moved past the ancient Greek conception of women’s troubles being due to a “wandering uterus” that moved throughout women’s bodies, menacing other organs, or the idea that women’s wombs became venomous without regular sexual release, there still persisted the idea that any unaccountable female behavior (anger, depression, insomnia, or general uppityness) stemmed from women’s mysterious reproductive organs. So, according to some historians, a few doctors stumbled on a seemingly miraculous cure: manual stimulation in that area, resulting in a “paroxysm” that, when experienced regularly, seemed to cheer women right up. But the poor doctor’s hand! The treatment was so popular that doctors weren’t able to keep up with the demand. Enter Thomas Edison and the harnessing of electricity. And thus, the first electric vibrator was born, much to the relief of doctors and patients alike.
It’s at this interesting moment in history that the play takes place, in the home of a well-to-do practitioner of the hysteria cure. Dr. Givings (David Meglino) spends his days in his operating theater applying the vibrator treatment (tastefully administered under a sheet) to well-heeled patients like Mrs. Daldry (Mindy Neuendorff) and Leonard Irving (Evan Michael Woods) aided by his faithful assistant Annie (Katlin Moon-Jones), while his wife Mrs. Givings (Jennifer Kuenzer) cares for their newborn daughter in the adjoining parlor. Mrs. Givings, although generally a cheerful, lively woman, broods over being unable to successfully breastfeed their daughter, which prompted her husband to hire a wet nurse, Elizabeth (Sky Williams), to keep the child fed. Frustration at her “failures” as a mother, and the cheerful dismissal of her feelings of inadequacy by her husband, Mrs. Givings becomes increasingly fascinated by the sounds coming from the next room when her husband administers his treatments, and, along with Mrs. Daldry, the women stumble towards a better understanding of love, sex, and electricity.
Let’s not beat around the bush, if you’ll allow: this piece takes chutzpah to pull off, and a cast that’s game for putting it all out there, sometimes literally. Fortunately, Imprint pulled together a tremendous cast for this production, and the result more than does justice to both Ruhl’s humor and her more poignant moments.
Kuenzer, familiar to audiences as Marie Antoinette in last season’s tour de force production of The Revolutionists, gives a beautiful, layered performance as Mrs. Givings. While initially the character’s cheery attitude and bluntness smack of a sort of 19th century riff on the manic pixie dream girl, Kuenzer gives a brittle edge to the character in the opening scenes that ripens into real desperation as the show proceeds, while still managing to display a lovely chemistry with practically every other actor onstage. Imprint newcomer Mindy Neuendorff could teach a masterclass on comic timing as the guileless Mrs. Daldry, who can’t seem to figure out why she prefers the sturdy Annie’s massage techniques over the good doctor’s. Meglino’s Dr. Givings is played as cheerfully oblivious to his wife’s distress and to any prurient implications in his treatment regime, but melts into confusion and a sort of communion with his wife by play’s end that was lovely in its subtlety. The character of Elizabeth is played with tremendous dignity and gravitas by Sky Williams (another familiar face to Imprint audiences). Having lost her own child recently, the moment Elizabeth takes up Mrs. Givings’ daughter to feed her and the baby latches on, a kaleidoscope of emotions passed over Williams’ face—regret, despair, love. It’s devastating, and Williams makes you feel it.
The rest of the cast is equally talented in smaller parts. Moon-Jones’ Annie is smartly efficient, with a yearning core underneath. Robert San Juan’s comedically blustering Mr. Daldry may be a bit of an oaf, but the actor invests him with some traces of a sincere desire to connect. Evan Michael Wood’s fey artist Leo—a rare male sufferer of hysteria, who gets treatments with a special mechanical implement in some of the play’s most audacious moments—is at turns languid and fiery and brings some real comedic chops to the part.
In a play with as much dressing and undressing as this one, the costumes are a key element, and Jessie Wallace deserves props for making the costumes not only beautiful but functional as well. The scenic design (by Ellen Doyle Mizener) is full of lovely period details and the two spaces—the operating theater and the parlor—have their own distinct but accurate flavor. And one imagines, intimacy director Ashley H. White (also Imprint’s Artistic Director) had her hands full directing the several onstage climaxes (as well as some partial nudity) but manages to create sequences that feel genuine and funny, but never exploitative.
From the title, you may think the show’s all about sex, but it’s as much about intimacy, and how lacking the one is without the other.
Imprint Theatreworks kicks off its new season with a bang.