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Theatre Review: In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play



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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, February 16, 2012
Playwright Sarah Ruhl is nothing if not gutsy. She boldly ventures into tricky topics ranging from science to sex in this unconventional period play. And yes, several scenes involving a clunky 19th Century prototype of the electric vibrator. Its inventor is a white-coated doctor who declares his device the very latest in medical technology.
 
(Humming)
 
Doctor: "Do you feel calmer?"

Patient (frightened): "A little!"

(Laughter)

Doctor: "Yes, it will just take a matter of minutes!"

The effect on the patient - a woman who has had difficulty sleeping, or enduring bright lights - is remarkable.

Woman: "How well rested you look!"

Woman 2: "I feel wonderful! Your husband is a good doctor."

There are plenty of belly laughs in this show. But it's more than a simple sex comedy. Tragedy crops up, and serious topics like race relations are explored. In this scene, a young white mother who doesn't have enough milk to breast feed her infant daughter talks with her black wet nurse, whose baby has just died.

Black Mom: "His name was Henry Douglas."

White Mom: "A boy."

Black Mom:  "Yes."

White Mom: "Have you buried him yet?"

Black Mom: "He's buried, at the church yard, All Souls. He was baptized before he died. For that, I'm grateful."

What makes this play so rare and engrossing is the way it weaves that kind of intimate detail with the larger sense that the whole world is changing.
 
Characters marvel as the newly-invented electric light bulb illuminates their homes. Women seek greater independence and equality in their relationships with their husbands.
 
This is also a remarkably well-organized production, with strong acting and gorgeous period costumes. Even though it's only February, I can tell you this very ambitious show will be on my short list of the year's best.
 
Capital Stage's production of "In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play" continues through Feb. 26th.
 
Listen to this 2009 NPR inteview with playwright Sarah Ruhl.
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