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In the Next Room or the vibrator play at Victory Gardens Theater | Theater review

This hysterical take on hysteria in the electric age is Sarah Ruhl’s most appealing work, featuring an incandescent Kate Fry.

Photograph: Liz Lauren
Mark L. Montgomery and Kate Fry in In the Next Room or the vibrator play at Victory Gardens Theater

What’s the buzz? It’s Sarah Ruhl’s most appealing work to date, a funny, feminist excavation of an odd moment in medical history that benefits from the playwright’s tempering of her most fanciful tendencies. There’s also the matter of Kate Fry, whose central performance is as incandescent as the new electric light bulbs that so fascinate her character. Fry plays Catherine Givings, the wife of a doctor in the northeastern U.S. circa the 1880s, at the dawn of the electric age. Catherine’s husband (Mark L. Montgomery) specializes in the treatment of hysteria, that malleable malady that afflicted women whose melancholy was otherwise inconvenient to explain. Dr. Givings’s instrument of choice is an electric massager that he applies to women’s genitals to dislodge congestion in their wombs.

Lest you think this a Ruhl invention, it’s historically accurate. In the Victorian age, women’s health and sexuality was so misunderstood—or perhaps, of so little interest—that it’s plausible for Catherine or for Dr. Givings’s patient Mrs. Daldry (Ruhl-abider Polly Noonan, whose daffy manner is put to good use here) to be alarmed by the experience of electrically induced paroxysm—that is, orgasm.

Ruhl and director Sandy Shinner sensitively explore their multifaceted characters. Catherine, unable to produce enough milk for her newborn daughter, feels unfit as a mother and unseen as a wife, while unhappy Mrs. Daldry warms to her treatment. Leo, a worldly painter who’s a rare male patient of Dr. Givings’s, provides Catherine with a fantasy out, but Ruhl for once doesn’t let things get too whimsical. Like any electrical system, In the Next Room is best when it’s grounded.

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