ZACH Theatre’s In The Next Room (or the vibrator play) is directed by Sarah Rasmussen, head of UT Austin’s MFA Directing program and former Associate artistic director of ZACH Theatre. Originally produced on Broadway in 2009, In The Next Room is set in the late 19th century at the home of Dr. Givings, a doctor and scientist during the dawn of the electrical age.
Most of Dr. Givings’ patients are women suffering from hysteria. He provides a treatment which relieves their symptoms by way of “hysterical paroxysm” in no more than five minutes per session. (Three guesses about the invention which makes all of this possible.) The main characters are Mrs. Catherine Givings (played by Jill Blackwood), wife of the good Doctor, and Mrs. Sabrina Daldry (played by Amy Downing), one of his patients. Both women struggle with feelings of inadequacy throughout the play.
Mrs. Givings is a new mother who feels like a failure because she can’t produce enough milk to feed her child and must hire a wet nurse. Mrs. Daldry is too exhausted to beat the ghosts out of her living room curtains. Morina Sine Clinton served as both Scenic and Costume designer for the play, creating symmetry with color and texture throughout. The set is filled with warm wood tones, highlighted with splashes of red and lace. These accent the cheery disposition and high energy of Mrs. Givings at the start of the play, matching well with her red and orange dresses.
It is not only Mrs. Givings’ dresses, however, which are of note. Throughout the play, the costumes were not only historically accurate, but highly detailed. Mrs. Daldry sported a new – and highly decorated – hat for each outfit, for example. And since Mrs. Daldry undressed to her underthings for her treatments, even her corset had to be historically accurate. Mrs. Givings’ and Mrs. Daldry’s skirts had excellent shape and draping for the era, as well as stylish accents. The wet nurse Elizabeth (played by Michelle Alexander) had nice texture in her skirt, though the color was more muted due to her class. The men wore smart vests which provided a good view into their personalities – a nice touch to round out the otherwise more drab male clothing options.
In addition to these technical components, the acting was solid throughout. Mrs. Givings’ descent into melancholy was as believable as Mrs. Daldry’s return to health, and the parallel stories provided great insight into the lives of women at the turn of the century. The smaller characters carried their weight, bringing depth to the story as a whole, which really made the ensemble pop. Irene White, for example, who played Mr. Givings’ assistant Annie, rounded out the edges of an otherwise matter-of-fact woman and made her true to life.
In moments, the play is a fun and light-hearted exploration of female agency. There’s a moment where Mrs. Givings and Mrs. Daldry play with the instrument in “the other room” while Dr. Givings is at the club. Mrs. Daldry believes the only the doctor should administer the treatments, but Mrs. Givings says it looks easy enough!
But the play is also a serious look at sex, intimacy, marriage, and women’s choices, both then and now.
Dr. Givings is a man of science, unable to show his love to his wife in a way she can understand. He’s too practical to realize how deeply the grief of not bonding with her child by breast feeding affects her. The marital strife of the Givings’ was palpable, making their reuinion at the end all the more touching. The play explores class as well as sex and gender, taking an honest look at a time when a rich woman like Mrs. Givings can pay for another woman’s milk to keep her child alive. But a poor woman like Elixabeth must mourn the death of her own infant while trying not to grow attached to the child she feeds.
While we no longer have wet nurses, how many women feel inadequate as mothers or ignored by their husbands? How many people don’t know how to communicate effectively with their spouses? How many women don’t understand their own sexual needs and bodily responses, and can’t escape what culture tells them sex ought to look and feel like?
Speaking of her character, and of society’s current relationship to pornography, Downing said, “Society informs us about what sex is supposed to look like and sound like. It’s so prescribed. Do we even know how to have a natural sexual response?” Downing said what struck her most about the play is “how lonely these women are – so desperate to talk.” The relationship Mrs. Daldry and Annie forge by way of the treatments in the other room is perhaps the most intimate relationship either have likely experienced. Downing noted, “I think they do fall in love, whether either is gay or not.”
Mrs. Daldry shares little emotional intimacy with her husband, and when she talks of their sexual relationship, it is in terms of darkness and pain. When Mrs. Daldry and Annie start to develop and intimate friendship, Mrs. Daldry is unable to be vulnerable, and instead pushes Annie away. At its heart, In the Next Room is an exploration of intimacy – whether physical or emotional.
The moment when a touch turns into something more. The moment when a woman, unencumbered by needing to put on a show or wear a mask, can really experience her body for herself. The moment when the barriers society has created for us start to break down.
In addition to having a host of strong female characters, ZACH Theatre’s production of In the Next Room is unique in that the director, assistant director, dramaturg, and majority of the technical designers are all women. Downing noted that as a women’s studies minor herself, this production is a “women’s powerhouse” and her “acting wet dream,” saying, “It’s so nice having all these women.”
Tickets start at $25 (or $18 for students) and can be purchased here or by calling 512-476-0541 ext. 1. In the Next Room runs through February 23.
This review was first published by The Horn on 02/03/2014.