Idle Muse's In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) amuses, but falls short | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Idle Muse's In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) amuses, but falls short

Sarah Ruhl examines old-fashioned female "hysteria" and newfangled treatments.

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UPDATE Tuesday, March 17: this production has been canceled. Check with box office for refunds.

Imagine Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" crossed with a sex-positivity workshop and you've got the outlines for Sarah Ruhl's 2009 In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), now in a revival with Idle Muse Theatre Company under Morgan Manasa's direction. Catherine Givings (Kristen Alesia), a young doctor's wife in a New York "spa town" circa the 1880s, wonders what her husband (Joel Thompson) is doing with all those neurasthenic female patients who make interesting noises behind the door. Turns out, he's using an early version of a vibrator on them to release the "excess fluid" in their wombs and thus reduce their "hysteria." (SCIENCE!) But Catherine has her own anxieties as a young mother, exacerbated by having to hire a wet nurse, Elizabeth (Michelle R. Bester), to help feed her daughter.

Now toss in a nascent lesbian attraction between Sabrina (Christina Renee Jones), one of Dr. Givings's patients, and his assistant, Annie (Erin Gallagher)—a woman as skilled with ancient Greek as gynecology—and Catherine's growing fascination with Leo (Chad Bay), her husband's lone male hysteric patient (an artist, naturally). You've got the makings for a Victorian sex romp.

But Ruhl takes the story in surprising directions that go against the grain of the surface narrative about sexual repression and desire. Opening night, the actors struggled at times to make those connections. Alesia has bright-eyed vivacity, but starts at a high pitch and doesn't leave herself a lot of room to grow emotionally as the story demands. However, Bester's Elizabeth—a Black woman mourning the loss of her own child while nursing an idle white woman's baby—brings in a steadying sobriety that grounds us in class-based reality. Overall, it's an amusing production that doesn't quite reach a satisfying climax.  v

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