Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Review: “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play”

Staff Writer
Austin 360

It takes a skilled playwright to craft a witty, poignant, and touching play about the turn of the century invention built as a cure for female hysteria. And if you don’t already know the history of that particular device, Sarah Ruhl’s “In The Next Room, or The Vibrator Play,” showing now through February 23rd at Zach Scott Theatre, will prove both entertaining and enlightening.

Nominated for both the 2010 Tony Award for best play and the Pulitzer Prize, Ruhl’s play deftly weaves together issues of motherhood, female sexuality, loneliness, and, well, the unanticipated potentials of electricity.

“In the Next Room” takes us back to the 1880s, to the home of Dr. and Mrs. Givings: a Victorian couple who have been recently blessed with their first child. But the delicate Mrs. Givings (Jill Blackwood) is having trouble providing her child with milk, and the couple must call in a nursemaid (Michelle Alexander). Oblivious to his wife’s emotional distress, the stolidly scientific Dr. Givings (Craig Mungavin) spends his days in his operating theater, administering professional treatments to his female patients.

What’s so wonderful about this play is the way that Ruhl manages to keep it from devolving into cheap laughs or casual raunchiness. The Victorian innocence of all the characters makes the discovery of their budding sexuality much more charming than risqué.

While Craig Mungavin seems miscast for the role of an older husband, Jill Blackwood is outstanding as the young, neglected wife, bringing innocent charm and sympathy to the role. As Elizabeth the nursemaid, Michelle Alexander shines in her final monologue, and Irene White’s straight-faced delivery as the doctor’s assistant (Annie) is absolutely priceless.

An expert comedic actress, Amy Downing brings a lot of hilarity to the show in her role as one of the doctor’s patients (Mrs. Sabrina Daldry), though it’s a shame that Downing’s character choices don’t offer much room for transformation over the course of the play.

In terms of production quality, the show is undeniably gorgeous. Having designed the play once before, Moria Sine Clinton brings her expertise into the Topfer space, and with magnificent attention to detail, transforms it into an opulent turn of the century estate. The costumes are equally stunning, although the sheer number of costume changes leads to many slow scene transitions, which weighs down the energy of the show.

The play ends up running close to three hours, which is rather too long, in spite of the excellent script and top-notch performances from most of the cast.

“In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play” continues through Feb. 23. www.zachtheatre.org