Thursday, June 16, 2022

"In the Next Room" at Yellow Tree Theatre

Sarah Ruhl's funny and feminist, historical and modern play In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play had its regional premiere at the Jungle about ten years ago, and can now be seen on Yellow Tree Theatre's intimate Osseo stage. It's an unexpected title, and while, yes, the play features the vibrator (more specifically the time in history when "electric massage" was a serious medical treatment for a particular ailment of women diagnosed as "hysteria"), the play is really about relationships, medical practice, the dawn of electricity, and connections. Yellow Tree's strong cast and detailed design, combined with this smart script, make for a highly entertaining night at the theater, even if it might make you squirm in your seat a little (which is not a bad thing in theater).*

The titular "next room" refers to Dr. Givings' medical office, which, awkwardly, is just off the parlor of his beautiful Victorian home in "a prosperous spa town outside of New York City." Women visit Dr. Givings when they're feeling a little off, and he very calmly and clinically administers the therapy, as their husbands chat with Mrs. Givings or take a brisk walk around the grounds. Catherine is very curious about her husband's practice, despite his attempts to keep her away from it. The ironic thing is that the doctor who is helping many women, strangers, to feel better, is completely oblivious to his own wife's needs. She has recently given birth to a beautiful baby girl but is unable to produce enough milk to feed her, so a wet nurse is hired to feed the baby. This leaves Catherine feeling inadequate as a mother and as a woman, something her husband has little sympathy for. He just pats her on the head and says "there there." Her restlessness and dissatisfaction manifest themselves as falling in love with a male patient (it is rare, but men apparently can also suffer from "hysteria"). Eventually the Givings are able to talk to each other about how they feel and what they want and need, in their own sort of way, and begin the road to healing and connection (without the aid of electricity).

Paul de Cordova, Erin Farste, James Rodgriguez,
Adelin Phelps, and Emily Gunyou Halaas (photo by Tom Wallace)
Director Austene Van (who was in the cast of the Jungle's production) leads the talented cast through the humor, heart, and poignancy of the piece. On the night I attended the show, understudy Sophina Saggau played the role of Catherine (filling in for Emily Gunyou Halaas, who played the patient in the Jungle's production). Like understudies always and especially in the last year, she did a fantastic job, dropping seamlessly into this production so that if you didn't know, you'd think she did it every night. She is spirited, funny, awkward, vulnerable, and relatable as this woman experiencing a life crisis. As Dr. Givings, Paul de Cordova is every bit the dispassionate and clinical scientist, opening up towards the end to show a little emotion. The strong supporting cast includes Laura Esping as the capable midwife, Erin Farste as the wet nurse, the always delightful Adelin Phelps as a patient, Joel Liestman as her husband, and James Rodriguez in a fun second act role as an artist.

Mrs. Daldry (Adelin Phelps) prepares for Dr. Givings'
(Paul de Cordova) treatment (photo by Tom Wallace)
Yellow Tree has managed to fit two rooms on their tiny stage, split down the middle. On the left is the warm and comfortable Victorian home, on the right is the cold and clinical doctor's office, separated by an imaginary wall and half door that allows the audience to watch people in both rooms at once, sometimes one oblivious of the other, sometimes quite aware of what's going on "in the next room." Each room is full of the detailed accoutrements particular to its function. Characters are dressed in elaborate period costumes, complete with period appropriate underthings, which are revealed as they remove their clothing piece by complicated piece. A key plot point is the arrival of electrical lighting, as opposed to the use of candles, and both are well and warmly represented on stage (scenic and lighting design by Sarah Brander, costume design by Samatha Haddow).

Yellow Tree had originally scheduled this production for February, and when Omicron hit, I'm so glad they postponed it instead of just cancelling it. It's a lovely, funny, touching play that is very much about women, their bodies and their relationships, historically but in a way that speaks to today. Check it out in charming Osseo through June 26.