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Amid flounces and bustles, good vibes bring rosy cheeks

Submitted by on Sep 28, 2011 – 8:52 am

Review: “In the Next Room” by Sarah Ruhl, at Victory Gardens Theater through Oct. 9 ****

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Mark L. Montgomery and Kate Fry in "In the Next Room" by Sarah Ruhl at Victory Gardens

Dr. Givings is a quiet man, a rational man, a scientist. His patients, however, are something else – “hysterical” women with only one thing on their minds. OK, it’s way in the back of their minds, and they don’t recognize it for what it is. For that matter, neither does the good doctor, though he’s very good at treating the symptoms.

Welcome to the Victorian world of Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play,” what you might call an extreme comedy of manners. Or perhaps a comedy of extreme manners. Actually, beneath all its bustles and repression, “In the Next Room” is a charming froth of a love story and it fairly effervesces in Victory Gardens’ staging under the wise and sympathetic direction of Sandy Shinner.

Ruhl, at age 37 one of Chicago’s brightest theatrical exports, displays a spot-on sensibility for the late 19th century American middle class, its men as well as its women. It was a time when husbands and wives addressed each other as Mr. and Mrs., when love-making was lights-out (not in the woo-hoo sense) and women suffered their sexual repression quietly — which created deep emotional distress that manifested itself in all sorts of physical and mental ailments, collectively diagnosed as hysteria. That’s where Dr. Givings enters the picture.

It is the dawn of the electrical age (the Givings household is newly illuminated by electric lamps) and the doctor has zealously embraced a new method of treating ladies’ hysteria. The ladies go away all smiles and rosy cheeks, and eager for the next treatment. Through the office door, Mrs. Givings, who has trouble getting attention from her devoutly scientific husband, hears gasps and frequent expostulations.

The plot turns when the current patient, a young woman called Sabrina, becomes pals with the neglected Catherine Givings. When the doc’s away, the ladies become mice at play. Kate Fry, as Catherine, and Polly Noonan, as Sabrina, make a delightful pair of slinking scamps. Like naughty adolescents, they discover there’s more to an on-off switch than meets the proper eye.

Dr. Givings is really the straight man to these cut-ups, and Mark L.Montgomery plays the wet blanket with unflinching earnestness and bedpan, er, deadpan. Sex has nothing to do with this scientist’s professional world. Titillation never sparks his nervous system. Yet Montgomery also shows, through the slightest cracks in his medical armor, that the doctor genuinely cares for his wife. It’s just enough to give the play its human heart and heat.

Yet one more complication enters the picture: a virile, worldly artist just home from Europe who comes to Dr. Givings for relief from what may be a rare case of male hysteria. Joel Gross’s portrait of the artist, as a man of passion and experience, provides a disruption of manners and world-view that could send a stolid marriage reeling off its axis.

Designer Jack Magaw’s sturdy middle-class home allows us to see what Mrs. Givings cannot, in the next room. And not the least intriguing of our discoveries there are costumer Jacqueline Firkins’ ladies’ garments. Layer upon layer of flounces, bustles, petticoats. No wonder…but never mind.

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Photo caption and credit: Mark L. .Montgomery and Kate Fry in Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room.” (Liz Lauren)

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