Review: In the Next Room, or the vibrator play (Tarragon Theatre)

I’m not necessarily a fan of period pieces but I am a fan of sex-positivity and sexual health so I was interested in In The Next Room or, the vibrator play, the opening show for Tarragon Theatre’s 2011-2012 season. I knew there was a good chance I would end up offended, as topics of a carnal nature are so often done poorly, but thankfully I was delighted by the production. The play centres on the Victorian medical practice of using electrical vibrating devices to induce “paroxysms” in women – and sometimes men – in order to relieve “hysteria.”

We now understand hysteria as a disease, to be a completely mythical, and misogynist, disease and we also now understand that orgasms are good for one’s mental and physical well-being. This is one of those shows where the hilarity relies much upon looking back at the ignorance of the past. However it is not a play without depth.

After all the moaning and laughter has subsided, the characters remain compelling. Dr. Givings is a stuffy “man of science” but, as portrayed by David Storch, does have a glimmer of understanding of what he is doing when he applies his medical vibrating device to a person’s nether regions. His relationship with that glimmer is uncomfortable and nuanced, as is his relationship with his assistant Annie, played by Elizabeth Saunders.

He loves but neglects his wife, played by Trish Lindstrom, a hyperactive woman who can’t help but be curious, and often unnerved, by the sounds she hears coming from the “operating room”. There is more to the plot that just orgasms though: Mrs. Givings is also not producing adequate milk for their new infant. Conveniently, the doctor’s patient, Mrs. Daldry (Melody A. Johnson) has a housekeeper at home whose baby just died, and thus is a perfect wet nurse. Elizabeth (Marci T. House) the housekeeper is black, which brings out some of the wife’s latent racism.

This is not her only flaw, but she is still a sympathetic character. The same is true of Dr. Givings and Mrs. Daldry: they are all fully recognized characters with weaknesses and virtues. Even the more minor characters, Mr. Daldry (Ross McMillan) and the rare male patient Leo Irving (Jonathan Watton) are reasonably complex.

If this is beginning to sound overly serious, be assured that there is more than a fair share of hilarity, despite being as PG-rated as you’d expect from a Victorian costume comedy.

I highly recommend sitting as close to the centre of the theatre as possible, as the stage is a great success in symmetry. The two rooms – drawing room and operating room – are mirror images of each other. The effect is lovely but it does mean that there was at least one start of a scene played in the doorway of one room that I could not see from my vantage point nearer the other side.

This is a play about sex that you could bring your grandparents to. But it’s also a play about sex that deals with things that need to be brought out of the closet of taboo – topics like same-sex attraction and prostate stimulation. And, even better, it accomplishes this with a jovial sense of good humour.

Details

In The Next Room or, the vibrator play, plays at Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgeman Ave) until October 23, 2011
– Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 pm
– Ticket prices range from $38 – $47; Rush tickets are available for $12.00 at the door for Friday night performances (on sale at 6pm) and Sunday matinees performances (on sale at 1:00pm)
– Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416.531.1827

Photo of Trish Lindström, David Storch, Elizabeth Saunders, Melody A. Johnson by Cylla von Tiedemann.

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