Long considered to be morally rigid and sexually repressed, modern audiences may be surprised to discover that, in some cases, the Victorians were actually more randy than history would have us believe.
Such is the matter presented in the Performance Network Theatre's latest offering, Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room, Or the Vibrator Play. The plot revolves around the idea of treating female "hysteria," a once common medical diagnosis, through unconventional means. The original production was Tony and Puliter Prize nominated in 2010, and the script has since received multiple stagings throughout the country.
Set in an upscale town somewhere in late 19th century New York, the story unfolds in the home -- and medical office -- of Dr. Givings (John Seibert). The advent of electricity has led Givings to find a new way of treating hysteria, and his preoccupation with his new invention proves a threat to his domestic life.
His wife, Catherine (Aphrodite Nikolovski) has just given birth to their first child. She cannot produce enough milk to properly nourish the baby, and so the couple is forced to hire a wet nurse (Carollette Phillips). The baby's attachment to its surrogate proves distressing to Catherine, but Givings is so absorbed in his work that he becomes increasingly distant from her.
Although the script did not offer the same emotional depth as some of the others featured at the theater, the actors presented their material well. At times the delivery of the slightly old fashioned dialogue seemed awkward, but those moments were fleeting. John Seibert as Givings and Rusty Mewha as Daldry, the overly protective husband of one of his patients, seemed most at ease in the period.
Seibert, in particular, shows off an effortless comedic sensibility, exemplified in the scenes where his rigidly professional physician cannot bring himself to look at his wife while he unbuttons her in the examining room.
A clear standout among the female cast was Leslie Hull as Mrs. Daldry, Givings' most recurring patient. Starting out with a degree of flightiness and breathless delivery, Hull skillfully transforms into a fully realized character, even if her storyline goes somewhat unresolved.
Nikolovski initially showed a limited range of emotion as Catherine, though as the play progressed she seemed to warm up considerably. One wonders if this may have been a clever directorial choice, reflecting Catherine's progression from traditional, restricted Victorian housewife to a more empowered and assertive woman. Carollette Phillips as Elizabeth provided some moving moments as she recounted her struggles as a grieving mother.
Monika Essen's exquisitely detailed set and costume designs are, as always, a delight. The lighting and sound designs contributed by Mary Cole and Carla Milarch, respectively, all assist in evoking the look and feel of a bygone era. Audiences should be advised that In the Next Room contains adult subject matter and is not appropriate for all ages.
In the Next Room, Or the Vibrator Play runs at Performance Network Theatre Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; 3 and 8 p.m. on Saturdays; and 2 p.m. on Sundays, from June 14-July 15. For tickets call 734-663-0681 or visit www.performancenetwork.org.
Nominate the Performance Network Theatre for a on Dexter Patch. The deadline is July 8.