Sunday, March 10, 2013

In The Next Room…—Triangle Productions!—The Sanctuary/Sandy Plaza, NE Portland

Playing With Fire

This production is playing through March 31st and is written by Sarah Ruhl and directed by Triangle’s co-founder, Donald Horn.  The theatre is located at 1785 NE Sandy Blvd.  For further information go to www.tripro.org or call 503-239-5919.

In The Next Room, or the vibrator play takes place in upstate New York in the 1880’s.  On the surface, it is about the invention of the vibrator.  But in its depths, it concerns the collision of personal expression, the electrical age, repression/oppression and love.  During the Victorian Age and before, women were to appear in society and at home as polite, pretty and perfect parents to the next generation.  But underneath this trussed exterior was a volcano waiting to erupt.

Couples were not permitted to even kiss before marriage, let alone have intercourse.  And after marriage, this was often accomplished in the dark with eyes closed.  Married couples sometimes had never seen each other naked.  It is not surprising then that this anxious feeling or moodiness of women, in particular, was soon diagnosed by the medical profession, as a type of hysteria.

The story takes place in the parlor and office of Dr. Givings (Peter Schuyler) and his wife (Jami Chatalas-Blanchard).  Mrs. Givings has given birth but cannot nurse her own child because she has “bad milk,” so a wet nurse is found, Elizabeth (Andrea White).  She is an Afro-American maid of one of the doctor’s patients, Sabrina (Louise Stinson) and her husband, Dick (Joe Healy).  Dr. Givings is treating Sabrina, with his nurse, Annie (Michelle Maida), for this hysteria with an invention of his, the electric vibrator.

Like many brilliant men, his obsession with his profession blinds him to the fact that he is neglecting his own wife and unaware that she is “suffering” from this same kind of “hysteria.”  So his wife and Sabrina take it on themselves to dip further into the workings and meanings of this mysterious vibrator and, subsequently, themselves. 

Into this mix enters Joe (Alex Fox), a free-spirited painter from Italy, also suffering from a type of block that prevents him from creating art anymore.  But with one “dose” of the doctor’s magical machine and he has an epiphany.  And not only is he able to paint again, but awakens bottled-up desires within the doctor’s wife and, himself, becomes smitten with Elizabeth.  The climax is bitter-sweet, with some of the desires being met but some, unrequited. 

A couple of underlying themes come to mind.  One, “there is no place like home.”  Like Dorothy, one can search over the rainbow for your heart’s desires, when all the time it was right under your nose.  But seeking and experimenting is part of the journey of discovering this.  Two, the invention of electricity (leading to, among other things, the vibrator) may have its downside as well.  As Joe, the artist, points out, there is something organic, natural and perhaps, romantic, about the flame, as in candles, and light, as in sunsets.  Have we sacrificed the natural for the artificial?

This thought can easily be translated into the computer age, as our reliance on electronics is bordering on an obsession with some people and businesses.  Can the artificial ever replace a hug, a touch, a caring voice or look from a friend beside you, when in need?  Happiness may not have to be plugged-in, it might already be within us, inborn, as the two main characters in this play discover.

The insightful direction by Mr. Horn gives careful examination to this complex play and leads his actors skillfully down the creative path.  Ms. Chatalas-Blanchard is amazing in the role of Mrs. Givings, wringing every ounce of truth from this multi-tiered character.  And Mr. Schuyler, as her equally repressed husband, shows us a man who truly loves his wife, but just doesn’t know how to show it.

Ms. Stinson, as Sabrina, pulls out all the stops in exploring the wide range of tightly-coiled feelings within her.  And Mr. Cox, as Joe, is spot-on in his interpretation of the hippie-like artist.  The rest of the cast is equally as good with not a false note in their portrayals. 

The costumes, designed by Ms. Chatalas-Blanchard, are very revealing in how even the clothing encased the natural movement and look of people.  And Mr. Horn’s set gives the feeling of being back in this age, as well as creating an easy space for the actors to emote and move.

I would recommend this play but, be warned, it is concerned about very adult matters and even has a nude scene.  All of this is very well handled and is necessary to telling the story.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.