Arts & Culture / Featured / Mosaic / February 27, 2014

The buzz about ‘The Vibrator Play’

Senior Neil Phelps interacts with senior Grace Moran during the dress rehearsal Tuesday, Feb. 25 of “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)”. (Jason Deschamps/TKS)

Senior Neil Phelps interacts with senior Grace Moran during the dress rehearsal Tuesday, Feb. 25 of “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)”. (Jason Deschamps/TKS)

I was fortunate enough to arrive early to Harbach Theatre Wednesday night. Any later, and I would have missed the original house music composed by junior Kyle Kunkler: a swirling melody that perfectly set the tone for the night ahead.

The past few weeks I have heard every tidbit of gossip imaginable surrounding “In the Next Room.” The costumes, I heard, were beautiful. The set, I heard, was beautiful. As a result, I was incredibly worried on seeing the opening night production, for when people focus on the quality of the scenery, it often means that the play itself is not very good.

Should I have been surprised, then, that what I witnessed Wednesday night was nothing short of extraordinary, one of the most incredible pieces of theatre I’ve yet to see produced at Knox? Under the direction of Distinguished Professor of Theatre Liz Carlin-Metz, the answer is a resounding “no.”

I have not always enjoyed Carlin-Metz’s productions, but I have always found them evocative in way that other directors have left me cold. To my understanding, her productions give the greatest focus to the characters and their developing relationships, allowing the actors to inform the setting instead of vice versa.

Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)” is thus a perfect fit. It centers on the relationship between Catherine Givings (senior Rose Dolezal) and her husband (senior Neil Phelps). The latter, a doctor, administers electric pulsations to the genitals of his female (and occasionally male) patients in order to produce a “paroxysm” that cures them of “hysteria.” Though he is always professional in his work, Catherine grows jealous of the intimacy he has with his patients, intimacy that is lacking in their own marriage. When Catherine disobeys her husband and tries out the machine for herself, the results are incredibly shocking, irrevocably changing her life.

A simple reading of the play produces nothing more than this basic plot summary. The other characters seem flat on the page, and their ever-changing relationships with one another seem secondary to the love and strife of Catherine and Dr. Givings. In seeing it on the stage, however, I am convinced otherwise. Each member of the ensemble had his or her moment to shine in the spotlight, and for me, there was not a weak performance in the entire cast. I was especially impressed by the restrained movements of such characters as Annie (junior Sam Auch) and Elizabeth (freshman Jordan Hurst), providing a contrast to the more gregarious and fluid motions of Dolezal and senior Grace Moran’s Sabrina Daldry. All played off each other well, and as a result, the laughs were louder and the quieter moments (especially later in the second act) were all the more heartbreaking.

This is not to say that I found the production faultless. Though the set was indeed beautiful, I felt that the immenseness of the living room diminished the efficacy of some of the play’s more intimate moments. (In particular, I am reminded of the painting scene, in which freshman Ian Tully’s Leo Irving would have practically needed a telescope to see the details of Elizabeth’s breastfeeding to produce an accurate work.) The lighting of the windows struck me as cheesy, and the sound design, especially the buzzy recording for the piano sequences, sounded too artificial and removed me from the world of the play. There was a moment, late into the first act, when I wondered if the play would be more effective if it were in a smaller venue: more intimate, and not reliant on such an iffy sound system.

This thought occurred, of course, before the ending sequence. I could speculate at length about Carlin-Metz’s intentionality in using such electronic sounds to highlight the play’s theme of nature versus technology (in a similar vein, I could question the production’s use of electric candles).

In witnessing the ending, however, those details were forgotten, and everything — not only in the play, but everything — just seemed to make sense. It’s rare that I’m at a loss for words like that, and rarer still that I would tear up at Knox theater. But I am, and I did. That ending is beauty. I have no other words to describe it (nor would I want to spoil it for you), and I am saddened that I won’t have the chance to see it again. “In the Next Room” is beauty. Please, go see it.

Jackie Hewelt

Tags:  doctor in the next room Knox College theater Liz Carlin-Metz theater vibrator play victorian

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  • http://www.jessicarabbit.com.au candy wilde

    I would love to see this play. Sounds so good!!!



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