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Sarah Ruhl’s ‘In the Next Room’ at the Wilma (1st review)BY: Dan Rottenberg 03.10.2011
Sarah Ruhl’s exploration of late Victorian sexuality is engaging and provocative on several fronts, and it benefits from a subtle and creative production by the Wilma. But Ruhl’s intellectual curiosity is undermined by an intellectual crime: judging a past culture by modern standards.
In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play. By Sarah Ruhl; Blanka Zizka directed. Through April 3, 2011 at Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. (at Spruce). (215) 546-7824 or www.wilmatheater.org.
All they need is loveDAN ROTTENBERG
It wasn’t until 1920 or so that doctors began saving more patients than they killed. Until then, medicine was more art than science; in the absence of antibiotics, pacemakers, MRIs and non-invasive surgery, doctors functioned not as supermen but as fallible mortals whose most valuable tool often was their soothing bedside manner.
Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room takes place more than a generation before that watershed moment— in the 1880s, when Edison’s electric light, having liberated humans from waking hours that had previously been dictated by the rising and setting of the sun, inspired grandiose notions about the limitless possibilities of applied science. The play’s physician protagonist, Dr. Givings (played at the Wilma by Jeremiah Wiggins), fancies himself a thoroughly modern man of science rather than art, even though his patients are mostly women said to be suffering from hysteria or melancholia.
You and I, from our smug 21st-Century vantage point, perceive immediately that what these women really need is a sensitive soulmate (male or female) who will untangle their tingle. But lacking this psychoanalytic insight, the well-intentioned Dr. Givings has invented a mechanical vibrator that harnesses the power of electricity to cure his patients’ problems, even as his emotional neglect drives his previously ebullient wife Catherine (Mairin Lee) into depression.
Morality in the milk
Catherine’s misery is exacerbated by her seeming inability to nurse her infant daughter, and also by the alacrity with which her clueless husband hires a wet-nurse to handle the job. When Catherine balks at turning her baby over to a stranger— especially a black stranger— Dr. Givings pooh-poohs her concerns and assures her, in his rational scientific manner, that when it comes to wet-nursing, character trumps race, because “morality goes right through the milk.”
Besides, the good doctor asks his wife rhetorically, “You’d rather have a Negro Protestant than an Irish Catholic, wouldn’t you?” As Mel Brooks put it in his “2,000-Year-Old Man” skit, “Boy, were we stupid back in those days!”
The Italian way
Ruhl’s script is engaging and provocative on several fronts simultaneously, touching not only on the various gulfs between the genders and between art and science but also on the gap between Anglo-American and Continental attitudes toward sexuality. (As I’ve observed elsewhere, when a woman wears a sexy dress in France or Italy, people assume she feels good about herself and her sexuality; in England or America, they assume she wants to get laid.) Notwithstanding Ruhl’s commercially exploitative insertion of the word “Vibrator” into the play’s subtitle, she steadfastly resists the temptation to go for easy and obvious orgasm laughs.
She benefits as well from the Wilma Theater’s fully engaged production. Alexis Distler’s set consists essentially of two rooms— the Giddings parlor and his medical office— reinforcing the sense that that, for each of the characters, the essence of life always seems to be in the next room— that is, beyond grasp.
For this play, the Wilma’s entire theater has been transformed into “salon-style seating,” so that audience members look into each other’s faces from two sides of the stage while the actors most often appear to us in profile. This arrangement can be annoying when one actor blocks another’s facial expressions, but that’s part of Ruhl’s point about life in a mechanized age: The more we think we know, the more we’re in the dark.
Under Blanka Zizka’s assured direction, the seven-person cast is uniformly subtle and human, consistently refusing to create cartoon characters or to pander to potentially salacious material. I particularly appreciated Kate Czajkowski’s gentle transformation from repression to liberation. Luigi Sottile, as an earnest Italian-influenced artist who finds himself suffering from “women’s problems,” and Opal Alladin as Elizabeth the wet-nurse, both convey in different ways the torments of outsiders struggling to repress their natural instincts in order to fit in to society’s larger needs.
Beneath those corsets
It’s a pity, then, that In the Next Room runs on perhaps 15 minutes too long, only to deliver an ending that’s obvious and even trite by today’s standards. I can’t say whether Ruhl herself needs a vibrator, but she could certainly benefit from a judicious editor armed with a scalpel.
Ruhl’s intellectual curiosity about late Victorian attitudes (there really was such a contraption as the “Chattanooga vibrator” portrayed in her play) deserves applause, but she commits the intellectual crime of judging a past culture by modern standards. Victorians buried their bodies and their emotions beneath impenetrable layers of hats, coats, corsets, petticoats, crinolines and longjohns for good reason: In the absence of antibiotics, they understood (as Ruhl apparently doesn’t) that spontaneous naked lovemaking in a garden in November (Ruhl’s apparent antidote for ailments of the heart) could be fatal. It’s easy to say, “All you need is love” when your medicine chest is amply stocked with penicillin.
Ruhl’s script invites us to look condescendingly at these emotionally immature Victorians, but I can’t help thinking that, 130 years hence, some 22nd-Century Sarah Ruhl will perform the same number on our culture’s sexual neuroses, not to mention our propensity for Tweeting and texting even at weddings and funerals. The more things change….♦
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