The electrical age collides with mid-Victorian sensibilities as Woolly Mammoth presents Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the vibrator play.
By Julie LaPorte
On the cutting-edge of 1880s science and technology, Dr. Givings begins using a new electrical massaging instrument to help relieve his female patients from symptoms of hysteria with hilarious and unintended results. This witty, insightful play raises questions about the true meaning of love, intimacy and fulfillment. Written by Sarah Ruhl and directed by Aaron Posner, In the Next Room or the vibrator play is playing at Woolly Mammoth through September 19.
“There is literally no theater in America that is in a better place to be doing The Vibrator Play than Woolly,” said Posner. “Because it is a little dicey at times, it is a little sexy, it is a little shocking. And you just know you don’t have to soft-pedal anything for Woolly audiences.”
Eric Hissom plays Dr. Givings, a science enthusiast devoted almost entirely to his work. Hissom effortlessly captures the man’s aloof nature. We see it as an attempt to master his emotions, but he seems genuinely confused when it obscures his connection with his wife. Katie deBuys, in her D.C. debut, plays Mrs. Givings with incredible humanity. She has just had a child but is unable to provide enough milk to feed her. Though feeling inadequate, bored and lonely, Mrs. Givings is determined to find happiness and love.
“Mrs. Givings is really complex and unique,” said deBuys. “She’s a great example of a woman in a very constrictive time period who won’t settle and who’s looking for a full life. Woolly’s slogan is ‘Defy Convention’ and it feels like Mrs. Givings – who has good intentions, who wants to be a good wife, who doesn’t want to make a fuss – ends up inadvertently defying all the conventions because she is such a strong character.”
The doctor’s assistant Annie, played by Sarah Marshall, is efficient and kind, but she has an untapped store of love to give that has been overlooked for years. Mrs. Daldry, a woman diagnosed with hysteria, is played by Kimberly Gilbert, brimming with longing for health and happiness and fulfillment. Mr. Daldry, portrayed by James Konicek, is dignified and reserved, but who also has a rakish side that lifts him out of the two dimensional.
Jessica Frances Dukes plays Elizabeth, the wet nurse who has recently lost her son. She carries herself wrapped in grief, still and silent, but when she speaks, you feel she has something important to say. Cody Nickell plays Leo Irving, an artist suffering from his own version of hysteria. He was dynamic, colorful and energetic, his old-fashioned coat flapping with each passionate gesture.
The action takes place in two rooms of the Givings’ home – the living room and the operating theater – both cluttered with the trappings of Victorian life. These rooms witness incredibly intimate moments, but they are moments most often shared by strangers, normally with the loved ones of the people involved in the very next room. Mrs. Givings with Mr. Daldry, Elizabeth with Mrs. Givings’ child, Mrs. Daldry with Annie, Mrs. Givings with Mr. Irving. Everyone plays off each other so well, the tension building with each development until the final climactic scene. The actors deliver the lines without a wink and a nod, leaving the audience free to enjoy the double entendres and innuendos all the more because they aren’t being forced.
“What I really want people to be asking themselves is, what do we see and what do we miss with those we know and love?” said Posner. “It’s very clear to us with our contemporary eyes what these people are missing about each other. We can feel a little superior and think, I would never do that. But then the questions get a lot more complex as the story goes along.
In addition to the play, Woolly Mammoth is hosting multiple events that allow audiences to engage with the material – the Secret Desires Project, an antique vibrator display and post-show discussions among others. For more information on In the Next Room or the vibrator play and the events related to the play, visit Woolly Mammoth.
Julie LaPorte is a freelance writing living outside Washington, DC. For the past year she has served as a columnist for Washington Life Magazine – penning reviews for the Performing Arts and the Paint the Town columns. She also works as a political marketing copywriter for candidates in local, state and national campaigns as well as for Congressional franked mail. Ms. LaPorte graduated from the University of Colorado Denver with a BA in English and a minor in art history. When not chasing down the best DC’s theatre and art scene have to offer, she enjoys trying her hand at new recipes, traveling both at home and abroad, and blues dancing.