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THEATER REVIEW: “In The Next Room or the vibrator play” relives odd 1880s treatment for hysteria

Cast your mind back to the late 19th century, when women were covered, corseted and all but entombed in clothing, not allowed to work outside the home and frequently diagnosed as victims of “hysteria” brought on by “congestion in the womb” when all they needed was more or better action in the bedroom.

Playwright Sarah Ruhl, whose wondrous talent has given us the excellent “Eurydice” and the delightful “The Clean House,” turns her pen to the development of the medical uses of the vibrator in her “In The Next Room or the vibrator play,” running through April 17 at San Diego Repertory Theatre. Sam Woodhouse directs.

It’s the late 1880s, electricity is in its infancy, and with that neanderthal attitude toward women and a society that told women sex was to be endured for procreation rather than enjoyed, it’s no wonder women were often frustrated and people like Dr. Givings (Francis Gercke) had a consistent clientele.

Dr. Givings lives and works in a wealthy spa town outside New York City. A specialist in gynecological and hysterical disorders, Dr. Givings has developed the progenitor of the modern vibrator, a new electrical contraption kept under lock and key in the next room to keep it from his wife Catherine (Aubrey Saverino).

It’s a hopeless endeavor; Catherine can hear the hum of the machine and see the results of treatment in Mrs. Daldry (Willow Geer), who enters a nervous little thing extraordinarily sensitive to the brightness of the new electric lamp – and leaves Dr. Giving’s “operating theater” flushed, relaxed, even a little sleepy, and eager to return for another treatment.

Catherine, a little “hysterical” herself, is intrigued by the change in Mrs. Daldry and can’t wait to try the new machine. She enlists Mrs. Daldry’s help (more specifically, her hatpin) and together they enter the locked room.

But hysteria wasn’t limited to women. Another amusing plot line has Dr. Givings treating artist Leo Givings (Brian Mackey), whose creative juices need a jump-start. “Hysteria is very rare in men,” he tells Mrs. Daldry, “but then again, he is an artist.”

In a secondary plot thread, Monique Gaffney does a lovely turn as wet nurse Elizabeth, hired by the Givings to take over where Catherine’s milk glands have failed.

This is a lovely production, with a great set by Victoria Petrovich, terrific costumes by Jennifer Brawn Gittings, fine lighting and sound by Jennifer Setlow and Tom Jones, respectively.

Woodhouse has an excellent cast headed by Saverino, whose Catherine is just the right combination of dutiful wife and curious experimenter longing for escape from the confines of her Victorian life.

Gaffney’s Elizabeth is a lovely interpretation, and Lisel Gorell-Getz is excellent as Dr. Givings’ nurse Annie. Dale Morris also does a nice turn as Mr. Daldry.

I have only one complaint: The play could use a more delicate touch than it gets from Woodhouse, who seems intent on playing up the titter-producing aspects by allowing several of his actors (Gercke, Geer and Mackey) to overplay. Audiences can be trusted to recognize a funny line or comic situation without the help of exaggerated movements and/or shtick.

But in my book, Ruhl rules, and this production should be seen even with that caveat.

The details

“In The Next Room, or The Vibrator Play” runs through April 17 at San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza.

Wednesday and Sunday at 7 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinee Sunday at 2 p.m.

For tickets, call (619) 544-1000 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.