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Arts and Entertainment

South Coast Rep's In the Next Room, or the vibrator play Makes for Stimulating Comedy

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Andrew Borba, Libby West and Rebecca Mozo in SCR's 2010 production of In the Next Room or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl. | Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR.
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In 1880s America, the male-dominated medical establishment, in its dubious wisdom, lumped any number of unrelated ailments suffered by women together as “hysteria,” including anything from depression to irritability to light sensitivity. One of the popular treatments for this condition involved electrical vibration being applied to the patient’s groin, which strangely made the patients feel a lot better. The wonders of science. Sarah Ruhl has written an amusing and entertaining, if a bit slight, play about this subject--In the Next Room, or the vibrator play--revealing that science can misinterpret major physiological things sometimes, and also how men and women can be blind to each other’s needs. The play receives a superb production at South Coast Repertory under Casey Stangl’s direction.

Dr. Givings (Andrew Borba) is amazed by the efficacy of the new vibration treatments he administers to his patients, and is fascinated with electricity in general. The treatment seems to work for both sexes, from unhappy wife Sabrina Daldry (Rebecca Mozo) to frustrated artist Leo Irving (Ron Menzel), and everyone is happy. Everyone, that is, except for Givings’ lonely wife Catherine (Kathleen Early), who’s isolated in the spa town. Her husband genially neglects her in the name of science, but she’s more hurt by her inability to produce sufficient milk to feed her newborn baby, and the child’s seeming preference for her new wet nurse, Elizabeth (Tracey A. Leigh). Most of all, Catherine wonders what’s going on in her husband’s locked examination room—what all those moans and screams are about—and one day she picks the lock and begins to upend her world.