As Tarragon's season opener, In The Next Room or the vibrator play is a script that gets us in the mood for more.
As most can probably attest, sex is hardly ever just about sex. With it comes heavier consequences: intimacy issues, fears of inadequacy, assumed roles and expectations, excruciating curiosity and confusion, and other relationship conflicts are brought to light. But, it can also be fun, and if you have the right sense of humour, funny too. And so it is with Tarragon Theatre’s 2011/2012 season opener, In the Next Room or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl, a funny and touching script exploring femininity, motherhood, love, romance, sex, and the invention of the electric vibrator.
With some outstanding actors like David Storch and Trish Lindström (who recently thrilled us in Mr. Marmalade and Exit the King, respectively), a pretty hot playwright (as in, talented), the 2011 TIFF debut of a film with a similar concept, and this year’s Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts winner and Tarragon artistic director Richard Rose in the director’s chair, In the Next Room or the vibrator play brings some serious buzz. Set in the 1880s, it happens entirely within the home of Dr. Givings (Storch) and Mrs. Givings (Lindström). As a doctor who treats emotional, weak, tired, and ill women day after day, Dr. Givings is happy to have a young wife as full of energy as Catherine is. But as her own insecurities as a mother, wife, and woman emerge, she becomes more and more curious about the groans and shrieks that emanate from his office and is consumed with the idea of trying the machine out herself. With one of her husband’s patients as a newfound ally, a wise wet nurse as the woman she wishes to be, and a romantic artist as the Casanova she longs for, eventually she realizes that her scientific and painfully logical husband is just as confused by her parlour room as she is by his operating theatre.
The performances all around hit the right spots, and Storch and Lindström are delightful as expected. But what really got our mojo going was Ruhl’s script and Rose’s directing, mixing farce-like energy and joviality, like Melody A. Johnson’s quivering Sabrina Daldry (and we mean that in every sense of the word), and with some really sweet and moving moments, like Marci T. House’s monologue mourning her lost infant son. In this way, Ruhl weaves in the larger implications of female sexual liberation, while keeping the overall atmosphere lighthearted. If this was meant to be an evocative examination of feminism and gender roles, well, it doesn’t come through. Rather, and this is much more likely the intention, at the heart of the play is a breakdown in communication and romance between man and wife—one that we, as an audience with a modern perspective, know can’t be solved by anything battery-operated.
With vibrators now well integrated into modern society, be it in window displays, party activities, or a major plot device in mainstream female-oriented TV comedy series, ignoring female gratification seems as incomprehensible and offensive as calling wet nurses “nine parts Devil and one part cow” or using the term “darkie” (all of which occur in Ruhl’s script, of course, in a bold and sometimes uncomfortable trip back in time and language). But, ultimately, In the Next Room brings up conflicts that persist today, like the correlation between technology and the disappearance of romance and how, just like flipping on a light, sex can illuminate whatever is or isn’t working in a relationship (and that’s not even scratching the surface on all the double-entendres buried in the script, played subtly instead of with over-the-top hokeyness).
Luckily, this show is sending us all the right vibrations.