Dr. Givings and his wife, Catherine, are not in a loveless marriage. But it lacks intimacy, which can lead to the other.
They're the central figures in Sarah Ruhl's comedy "In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)," which opened Thursday to a packed house at the Blue Barn.
A solid hit double-loaded with laugh-out-loud moments and chewable food for thought, the show combines strong ensemble acting and able direction by Amy Lane. In this story set in the Victorian era of the 1880s upstate New York, all the characters are missing an emotional connection at the center of their lives. Some don't know it.
Mrs. Givings (Ashley Spessard), who has just had a baby, longs for a closeness with her baby and her oh-so-clinical husband (Matthew Pyle) that she does not feel.
Wetnurse Elizabeth (Rusheaa Smith-Turner), breastfeeding Mrs. Givings' baby, pines for the child she lost.
Sabrina Daldry (Teri Fender), suffocated by a domineering and oblivious husband (Doug Blackburn), feels like a childless failure. Young artist Leo (Gage Wallace), whose fiancťe just left him, cannot paint anymore. Both come to Dr. Givings for treatment.
Annie (Mary Kelly), the doctor's assistant, has carefully buried and disguised the void in her life.
That doesn't sound particularly funny.
But the medical diagnosis of "hysteria," which the doctor is treating with his new electrical inventions, and other attitudes of that era are hilarious. Characters consistently misread each other, and that's funny, too.
So is regarding sexual stimulation, which is what's going on "in the next room," as a clinical, emotionless procedure. The polite, formal separation of love from the physical aspect of it is the play's point, along with a deep-seated craving for intimacy.
Ruhl's play is tricky because the emotional beats within scenes quickly shift from outrageously funny to tender and even tragic. Not all the cast are as adept as Pyle or Kelly at giving those shifts the time they need to feel genuine. A few pregnant pauses could do wonders at balancing the story's dramatic heft with its comedic heights.
Yet I was mightily impressed by detailed character work from all seven actors. Fender's delicate shyness, for example, plays perfectly off Blackburn's blind bombast. Wallace's playful, chatty brio is the opposite of Kelly's quiet internalization, yet both effectively draw audience goodwill. Smith-Turner stopped the room with a memorable speech about Elizabeth's feelings for the Givings baby.
A tricky transition when the Givingses finally confront their differences head-on was particularly effective, and aesthetically breathtaking. Spessard and Pyle create credible chemistry that fits a marriage in crisis.
Martin Scott Marchitto's attractive scenic design (dark wood, intricate wallpaper) ingeniously squeezes the doctor's home and office, plus a hidden garden, onto the tiny stage without inducing claustrophobia.
Period costumes (including authentic underthings) by Jennifer Pool and props by Darin Kuehler are a cut above, and so is effective lighting by Bill Van Deest.
The show is a good bet to be remembered in multiple categories, come awards season.
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