By Annette Hinkle
What are the secrets couples keep from the outside world and what secret passions do they keep from one another?
And when do long-term relationships wear thin to the point where communication and love breaks down, leading one partner to seek out the assistance of a professional or validation from a stranger?
These are the questions posed (and satisfactorily answered) by “In The Next Room…or the vibrator play,” Sarah Ruhl’s charming and surprisingly probing play now running at the Bridgehampton Community House courtesy of HITFest and the Naked Stage.
The play takes place in the late 1800s at the dawn of the electrical age and director Joshua Perl uses the black box approach with this production to spectacular effect. The action and the audience are all contained on the small stage of the community house.
Set in the home/office of Dr. and Mrs. Givings (Glenn Thomas Cruz and Licia James Zegar), the décor itself speaks of the dual nature of Victorian life — cozy and welcoming, but with subtle undertones of suffocating confinement. It’s a statement that relates to much of the subtext of the plot itself.
Plush red tones dominate in the oriental rugs, the ornate furnishings, the upright piano and a myriad of period swag lighting instruments which emit the steady and smoke-free light of the new era. The staging also speaks of veiled references — outward propriety and inward longing — while offering an intimate way to present an intimate play about a very intimate subject.
And that’s where the vibrator comes in.
Thomas Edison has just electrocuted an elephant at Coney Island for show (never mind the event didn’t really happen until 1903) and in addition to the many lighting implements which visitors to the Givings household enjoy experimenting with, there are other decidedly more personal experiments going on “in the next room.” Looking to cure “hysteria” in women by getting their juices flowing, Dr. Givings has created a machine that relies on electricity to stimulate their nether regions in his home office.
The play opens with Mr. Daldry (Joe Brondo) bringing a weak and weepy Mrs. Daldry (Caroline M. Smith) in for her first treatment. Dr. Givings and his assistant, Annie (Bonnie Grice) use the buzzing device to induce in the patient a new form of hysteria which she has certainly never known at the hands of her husband. Soon, Mrs. Daldry is downright perky and most eager to be on time for her daily sessions with Dr. Givings and Annie.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Givings is left to wonder about it all on the formal side of the wall which is cleverly delineated by a set of simple wires running from ceiling to floor. She frequently listens at the door to try and discern what the noises are about.
Her husband assures her it’s all very clinical and for Mrs. Givings, a free-spirit with mounting doubts about her marriage, therein lies the problem. As Dr. Givings himself so eloquently states, “What men do not perceive because their intellect prevents them from seeing would fill a book.”
That couldn’t be more true in this case, and Mrs. Givings longs to recapture romance by falling in love with another man — a British artist, Leo Irving (played by Christian Scheider), newly returned from Europe who presents himself as a rarity — a man with hysteria. It may be that Leo sees too much beauty in the world – like many women, he’s emotional to the point where he feels pain, which is exactly why Mrs. Givings is so secretly smitten.
Yes, it’s rare concedes Dr. Givings, but hysteria can affect men as well. He immediately commences treatment using a slightly different device for a different part of the anatomy and soon Leo, too, is showing up for daily treatments, much to Mrs. Givings delight.
But Mrs. Givings has more pressing concerns in the form of her infant daughter for whom she is unable to produce sufficient milk. Ever the clinician, Dr. Givings brushes off his wife’s feelings of inadequacy and enlists the services of Elizabeth (Natasha Murray), an African-American domestic who has recently lost her own infant son and has milk to spare.
As the child grows plumper with Elizabeth’s nourishment, Mrs. Givings becomes distraught over the bonding between baby and wet nurse. Neither her husband nor her daughter seem to need her. But in a painfully revealing monologue late in the play, Elizabeth shares the resentment she feels for this woman’s child who is growing healthier every day on milk that should have been used to keep her own son alive.
This cast, under direction of Perl, does an amazing job with the material while as a playwright, Ruhl is spot on in the intriguing dichotomies her script offers which play out in several metaphoric and symbolic ways, adding great depth to the experience. The dual purposes of the Givings home — staid Victorian family life on one side, place of hidden pleasure on the other; the role of women as mothers, wives and hostesses and the crippling inadequacies they feel when they fail at any one of them; the clinical detachment that can come between couples after years of neglect — all are powerful messages.
Also powerful, and suggestive of a subtler subtext, are references throughout of the two dueling forms of electricity at the time — AC vs. DC. When Elizabeth suggests to Mrs. Givings and Mrs. Daldry that perhaps the machine in the other room could be used in the company of their uptight “eyes closed, lights off” husbands, both women burst out in uncontrollable laughter. The idea is uproarious. These women are more inclined to try out the machine in the company of one another and Annie— which speaks of another kind of love.
Finally in desperation to rekindle passion, Mrs. Givings does broach the subject of using the device with her husband. He rejects the notion, concerned it would compromise his scientific integrity.
Fortunately for the long suffering Mrs. Givings, the play ends on an upbeat note when she and Mr. Givings rekindle their passion — after a dose of jealousy — the old fashioned way … through a romantic romp and roll in the first snowfall of the season.
Though it’s set in the late 19th century, Sarah Ruhl’s astonishing play has much to offer 21st century couples because, ultimately, this play is about love – the love of men for women, women for women, women for their children.
But perhaps most importantly, it’s about communication — finding ways to keep passion alive long after couples have grown complacent in their relationships.
And when you get right down to it, is there any better therapy — electrical or otherwise — than that?
“In The Next Room…or the vibrator play” runs through May 26, 2013 at the Bridgehampton Community House (2357 Montauk Highway, Bridgehampton). Shows are Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and seniors). Tickets are available at www.eventbrite.com or at the door.