Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)” is about electric connection, both metaphorically and literally. Following the invention of electricity in the Victorian era, Dr. Givings is a scientist who uses vibrators as a treatment for people with hysteria. Meanwhile, he refuses to treat his wife, who longs to feel closeness with her husband. Particularly, it looks at women who are struggling with motherhood and womanhood. “In the Next Room” explores sexual liberation, empowerment, and a defiance of gender norms at a time of repression and restriction. Director Myrna Wyatt Selkirk brings these themes to life through the use of casting, set design, props, and space, and makes them particularly resonant with the young adult audience in the McGill production of “Into the Next Room”.
The cast of “In the Next Room” was spectacular; not only did they bring their own characters to life, but their interactions also fueled one another’s performances. Particularly notable was the potrayals of Dr. Givings, Mrs. Givings, and Mrs. Daldry.
Anurag Choudhury played Dr. Givings, the uptight and reserved scientist who wants practicality above anything else. While it would be easy for Dr. Givings to be a controlling caricature, Choudhury portrayed him with nuance- Givings is not just an uptight doctor, but also someone who genuinely loves his wife, he just does not know how to express himself. His awkward encounters with his wife fueled the tension in their marriage, as well as her own frustration; in one poignant scene, he pats her tenderly to console her, yet he is still visibly uncomfortable.
Sophia K. Metcalf portrayed Catherine Givings. Mrs. Givings is a character who in struggling to find a connection to her husband and daughter, tries to cure her loneliness by befriending her husband’s patients. Metcalf brought an infectious energy to the role of Mrs. Givings, and this spirit influenced each of the other characters’ emotional journeys. Particularly memorable were her interactions with Mrs. Daldry, a reserved woman, who was inspired by Mrs. Giving’s uninhibited nature. While Metcalf’s performance was sometimes over the top, she still performed Mrs. Givings’ monologues and tangents spontaneously and genuinely.
Most incredible of these performances was Clara Nizard’s Sabrina Daldry. At the beginning of the play, Mrs. Daldry was an uptight and depressed character, hysteric about her inability to have children. Nizard depicted her transformation as a more emotionally in touch and sexually empowered woman, beautifully. What was most remarkable was how Nizard depicted each of Dalrdy’s orgasms differently. She approached the orgasms at the hands of Dr. Givings and his vibrator first with trepidation and then with indifference, the orgasm she experienced with Mrs. Givings as they sneak into the doctor’s office with an unruly spontaneity, and her orgasms with Anna as more meaningful and exhilarating. It was this portrayal, one that relied on body language and shrieks instead of dialogue, which catapulted her performance, and shaped the development of not only her own character, but also the play as a whole.
The costumes in “Into the Next Room” were intricate and beautiful, and helped to create a Victorian world. The costumes were used as representations of the characters’ development. When Mrs. Daldry first enters the stage, a hat obstructs her face and she is wearing a long coat. However, as she begins to experience orgasms and becomes sexually liberated, her dress dramatically changes. Instead of drab blues, she wears bright greens and purples, and exquisite skirts. Similarly, after visiting Dr. Givings, Leo also dresses more spectacularly, wearing a magenta jacket and other brightly colored clothes. These transformations are meant to symbolize the freedom and excitement in these characters’ sexual revelations.
Equally important as what the characters wore was what they did not. Undressing played a critical role in the play, as it came to represent the characters’ journeys towards freedom and sexuality. It is important to note how many layers the women wore, and the amount of time it took for them to reveal their true selves. The role of undressing was particularly crucial in Mrs. Daldry’s transformation. Most poignant was the symbol of the corset, which both physically and metaphorically forced the women to fit a certain shape. Removing the corset meant escaping physical confines, as well as predetermined expectations of womanhood. The act of undressing was most beautiful in the play’s end, when Mr. and Mrs. Daldry reveal themselves to one another, sharing a more genuine and vulnerable moment than they have yet experienced.
Set & Props
The set effectively portrayed the convergence between a new and old world, showing how groundbreaking the introduction of electricity was. It featured an old-fashioned Victorian home, complete with antique furniture and pastel colored walls. However, the Givings’ living room and doctor’s office were scattered with modern props, namely the vibrator and an electric lamp. These items created tension in that they brought groundbreaking technology into an old home.
The vibrator was comically large, and the sound operator timed its buzzing noise perfectly, increasing and decreasing the sound for comic effect. It was successfully used to ignite excitement in each character. The electric light switch was similarly successful, and was used to reflect the characters’ feelings, sometimes turned off for more tender moments. Leo and Mrs. Daldry were both originally adverse to the electric light, yet after their treatment they no longer notice its presence. With both the electric light and the vibrator, the play questions whether or not manufactured electricity can replace the magic of a flame. Each of these electric phenomena depicted the shift in human connection that comes with technology.
Throughout the play, there were some accidents with props; at one point the doorknob broke, at another, a pink hat fell across the stage. However, these mishaps did not detract from the play, as the actors were so skilled and in touch with their characters that they played these incidents as if they were part of the script. It is this type of improvisation that proves a truly talented and knowledgeable performance team.
A particularly effective piece of set design was the window in the Givings’ living room. The audience could see when it rained, when there was a storm ,or if it snowed, which created pathetic fallacy, and enhanced the plot development.
Where “In the Next Room” was weakest was in its use of music. In depicting the Victorian era “In the Next Room” emphasized both technological enlightenment and sexual awakening, and these modern developments made the historical piece more relevant and resonant. Therefore, dramaturgic elements were historically specific, like dialogue, costume, and the set, did not detract from an underlying modern tone. However, these devices were not unified, in that the play’s score featured modern songs. These anachronisms did not accomplish their goal of connecting the play to a 21st century college audience, but rather, disrupted the performance’s Victorian flow. As an audience member, it was easy to be enthralled in the constrictive Victorian world that the production team so beautifully created. Sound of Silence was used as a background to Catherine Givings’ sadness, however detracted from the nuance of her sense pain and abandonment, in that it is an overwrought musical trope. The use of Electric Love was similarly simplistic; it was the background for Mrs. Daldry’s orgasm immediately before the intermission, and the use of a song with the word electric felt clichéd.
“In the Next Room” was most effective in its use of space. The mimetic space revolved around the Giving’s home, including their living room where Catherine greets her husband’s patients, and Dr. Giving’s office. An imaginary wall separated the two rooms, and the boundary emphasized Catherine’s frustration and desire to see her husband’s office, the titular “next room”. Moreover, the fact that this wall was imaginary served as a beautiful metaphor for the unspoken distance between Catharine and her husband.
Equally effective was the use of diegetic space, which included the nursery and the outdoors. That Elizabeth only nurses Lottie offstage is symbolic of Catherine’s longing to feed her own daughter, and helped to emphasize her sense of jealousy and exclusion from Elizabeth and Lottie’s bond. The outdoors helped further each of the character’s motivations. Catherine constantly described how she loves taking walks outside, even in the rain. To Catherine, the outdoors represents freedom from the confinement of her strained home life. The theme of walks outdoors, a use of both diegetic space and time, was important for many of the characters. Catherine walks outside in the rain with Mr. Daldry, where for the first time she has the freedom to hold an umbrella for herself. Anna and Mrs. Daldry walk outside together, and begin a discussion about Greek mythology, igniting a deep bond. As well, Leo walks Elizabeth home, and this is where tells her he loves her. The natural and electricity free outdoor space creates connections that are both strong and genuine. That is why the play’s ending was so meaningful; when Mr. and Mrs. Givings break through his office to jump outside, it is as if they are bringing the power and magic of the outdoors into their home. Moreover, they are leaving the doctor’s office, a place of forced sexual excitement, in favor of enjoying one another, and not a machine.