City Lights examines the “hysterical” 1880s

By Ande Jacobson

While often the focus of many comic routines, the modern vibrator has its origins in medical science dating back to the 1880s, the dawn of the electric age.  At that time, vibrators were employed as a treatment for “hysteria”, a problem thought to originate in the uterus that was treated by manipulation.

On opening night, City Lights Theater Company’s Executive Artistic Director Lisa Mallette mentioned to several theatergoers that Sarah Ruhl’s, In the Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play) “sits in the pocket of the CLTC mission”, a statement with which this reviewer heartily agrees.  This play is provocative and engaging in a way that few are, challenging the audience members to delve beneath the surface humor and explore the richness of the interpersonal relationships and social morays portrayed in front of them.

In her program notes, Director Kimberly Mohne Hill rightly claims the aforementioned “vibrator is the theatrical device through which the majority of the story is told,” although the vibrator itself isn’t really the point.  The innovative story is set in the 1880s and focuses on the lives of the seven characters in the play.  Humor is derived both from the antiquated medical science of the time along with examination of rather repressive social norms.

Dr. Givings (Jeffrey Bracco) is an expert in the treatment of “hysteria” and is also an inventor having developed a device – the vibrator – to speed up treatments for those afflicted with the condition.  His wife Catherine Givings (Elissa Beth Stebbins) has recently given birth, but she cannot produce enough milk to feed the baby.  She’s in the dark about her husband’s work, knowing only that he spends a lot of time with his patients conducting experimental treatments, and that he then regales his friends at the local club with stories about his “boring” science and accomplishments.  Meanwhile, Catherine is left alone much of the time as her baby withers from malnutrition.

Dr. Givings’ patient Sabrina Daldry (Sarah Moser) and her husband Mr. Daldry (Damian Vega) have difficulty in their marriage purportedly resulting from Sabrina’s hysteria.  The Daldrys’ housekeeper, Elizabeth (Rachel Davidman), recently lost her newborn child and is still producing milk.  Upon hearing of Mrs. Givings’ difficulty feeding her newborn, Mr. Daldry offers Elizabeth’s services as a wet nurse to Dr. and Mrs. Givings, so long as they promise not to steal her away.  Dr. Givings’ assistant Annie (Shannon Warrick) is a midwife and has never been married.  She helps administer treatment to numerous patients with hysteria, and in the process, she connects with a few of them.

Finally, Leo Irving (Adam Magill) is a painter who seeks Dr. Givings’ services to treat his lethargy and apathy following a failed romance.  Dr. Givings claims that hysteria is rare in a man, but it can happen.

Ruhl’s writing is a bit formal, but the cast decisively engages the audience, adding to the insights and discoveries to come.  While some of the staging seems geared to a larger venue with many of the discussions blocked so the actors cheat directly out to the audience rather than talking to one another, it works for the most part.  In contrast, several of the intimate discussions are blocked more conversationally giving them additional punch.  Additionally, well-timed dual-action segments are used at various points in the play, drawing focus to one room, while simultaneously continuing action in the other.

Bracco maintains a demeanor befitting a distinguished man of science as he is detached, focused on his study, and in large part ignorant of his wife’s suffering.  Bracco and Stebbins have some hearty exchanges that, even in the formal language used, have a strong impact.  Stebbins’ character suffers visibly as she tries hard to find a way to connect with Dr. Givings.

Moser captures the turmoil her character is experiencing rather well, and her performance requires some significant non-verbal action that clearly gets the point across.

Warrick’s Annie is understated, subservient to the doctor, and yet intriguing given Annie’s breadth of knowledge.  Warrick leaves the audience wanting to get to know her character better.

Vega’s Mr. Daldry is flat, primarily due to the writing rather than the acting.  The character isn’t fully developed in the plotline.

Magill has the honor of playing the most interesting character in the piece.  He embodies Irving in a believably exotic fashion, accent and all, convincingly connecting with Davidman, Stebbins, and Moser.  His Irving is a sympathetic character who regains his zest for life, and his art, more through his interactions than his medical treatment.

Ron Gasparinetti’s primary set captures the flavor and feel of an 1880’s home, showing us Givings’ living room and operating theater – in the next room – with nicely detailed furniture, bookcases, and medical apparatuses.  Given venue constraints, the second abstract set, seen only briefly, is a stark contrast to level of detail seen in the house, and is only identifiable based on the discussion in the scene.  Pre-show, dim electric lights are present, bathing the audience in a light level appropriate for the period.

Sound Designer George Psarras provides original music over the scene changes consistent with the intended period, and Moser also provides musical accents playing the on-stage piano at key moments.

This City Lights production is quite entertaining and is worth a look.  While the language is clean, and the bulk of the action is conducted modestly, sexual overtones run rampant throughout making the play inappropriate for young audiences.

What:  Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play)

Where:  City Lights Theater Company located at:  529 South Second Street, San Jose, CA 95112.

When:  Thursdays – Sundays through 17 June 2012.

See www.cltc.org or call 408-295-4200 for more information.

(Photo courtesy of City Lights Theater Company)

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3 thoughts on “City Lights examines the “hysterical” 1880s

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