Tuesday, June 16, 2015

In The Next Room or the Vibrator Play—Profile Theatre—SW Portland

Snow Angels

This comedy-drama is written by Sarah Ruhl and directed by Adriana Baer (Profile’s Artistic Director).  It is playing at the Artists Rep. space, SW Alder St. & 16th Ave., through June 28th.  For more information, go to their site at www.profiletheatre.org or call 503-242-0080.

The title of my review will become clear at the end of the play but, in essence, it has to do with giving way to one’s passion and “winging” it, perhaps.  The story has a great deal of humor, as well as depth to it.  And it doesn’t deal with just one issue but several, including a new age with the coming of electricity into every home, the bond between mothers and their infants, the introduction of the vibrator to cure “hysteria” in women and the awaking of men to the needs of the fairer species…”what men do not observe because their intellect prevents them from seeing, would fill many books.”

In The Next Room… 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 nature of artistic vision, progress in 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 creators 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 (Leif Norby) and his wife, Catherine (Lauren Bloom).  Mrs. Givings has given birth but cannot nurse her own child because she has “bad milk,” so a wet nurse is found, Elizabeth (Ashley Nicole Williams).  She is an Afro-American maid of one of the doctor’s patients, Sabrina Daldry (Foss Curtis) and her husband, Mr. Daldry (Karl Hanover).  Dr. Givings is treating Sabrina, with his nurse, Annie (Beth Thompson), 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 the doctor’s wife and Sabrina take it on themselves to dip further into the meanings of this new instrument in this strange new world and, subsequently, themselves.

Into this mix enters Leo (Matthew Kerrigan), 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.  Not only is he able to paint again, but awakens bottled-up desires within others as well.  The climax is bitter-sweet, with some of the desires being met but some left smoldering.  To tell you more would be giving away discoveries an audience should make.

This is a story for discerning adults because of the subject matter, as well as some brief nudity.  But, what could have been a cheap, tawdry sideshow is made beautiful by the pen of Ruhl and direction of Baer.  The author dips her pen into her heart and writes with blood and Baer extends those strokes into a warm, humorous, revealing and passionate tale in which we just might meet ourselves.

The set (Stephen Dobay) and costumes (Sarah Gahagan), too, are not only functional for the period but also suggest the confinement and repressed secrets underneath one’s garments and behind locked doors.  The backdrop is particularly impressive with parasols and fans, products of a waning age that shaded people and cooled passions.  But with electricity, dark corners will be exposed and shadows disbursed.  A new age is beginning to evolve.

The actors are all first rate.  Norby is always worth watching on stage.  He plays the doctor as a man, on the surface, content with everything in its place but, inwardly, changes are happening.  He has quiet intensity that is perfect for the character.  Bloom, as his wife, is both funny and sad as we watch her trying to make sense of this new-found world she has been thrust into.  Her arms are flying and her words unguarded as she tries to express herself.  A well constructed performance.  Thompson, as the nurse, does nicely as an enigma, a person just doing her job but with desires, too, unquenched.

Williams, as perhaps the wisest and most down-to-earth of the group, is wonderful as she tries to navigate her way into these untested waters for a Black American woman in this Age of Discovery.  Kerrigan, as the free spirited artist, may be the most repressed of the bunch, as he appears to be unconnected to the trials and tribulations of this society.  But, once his creative juices are allowed to flow again, he charts a new course for himself.  Well done.
Hanover, as the husband of Sabrina, seems not to have a clue as to what’s going on, and is marvelously funny as he, like a bull in a China shop, continues to plow full-speed ahead.  And Curtis, as his wife, is terrific, as we seem to experience this journey through her eyes.  Entering into the picture as an attractive but repressed young woman who, once awakened, she is fully capable of dealing with this new-found energy.  It is lovely to watch her bloom and embrace this brave, new world.

I recommend this show but know that it is very adult in nature.  If you do choose to see it, tell them Dennis sent you.