An ode to bodies electric

In the Next Room (The Vibrator Play)
@ Theatre Inconnu until March 2/13
Directed by Naomi Simpson
Written by Sarah Ruhl

Reviewed by Leah Callen

Sparks fly in the 1880s when Dr. Givings electrifies women with his revolutionary therapy for hysteria–a vibrator. His wife, Mrs. Givings, is a live wire desperate to plug in to her husband’s secret practice in the next room. But the good Dr. turns her off and turns on the sensitive Mrs. Daldry instead, with a prescription of casual pleasure to put the roses back in her cheeks. Tension builds when Leo, a passionate painter, a robust Mr. Daldry, and a black woman named Elizabeth are drawn into the undercurrent. The play warns: be careful not to over-pet a cat or it might burst into flames.

Watching In the Next Room causes fits of laughter. The actors’ paroxysms were so refreshingly real and unabashed when struck by erotic lightning. Emma Conde hit the high note perfectly as the delicate Mrs. Daldry undressing dutifully. Elizabeth Marsh delivered an emotional climax as the wet nurse, as natural as rain. I was torn by her character being more comfortable in her own skin than the two uptight, white ladies–both touching and stereotypical. James Roney was one hundred percent Bohemian as Leo who wants to immortalize the down-to-earth Elizabeth with a painted halo. Celine Richmond gave a magnetic performance as the midwife, Annie, while Jason Stevens was a forceful whirlwind as Mr. Daldry, who just wants his appetite satisfied. Odile Nelson was a bit of a caricature as the intense Mrs. Givings, but she drove the plot forward with a firm reign and growing pathos. All the while, Julian Cervello basks in the electric halo of his table lamp as Dr. Givings. In a clever lighting maneuver, each time a patient finds sexual enlightenment, they too achieve a golden halo.

I enjoyed the sense of humour in the simultaneous staging. Mrs. Givings pours cups of tea for guests in her rosy living room while her husband strips them down to their basic anatomy in his clinic. When the power goes out, both husband and wife must resort to old-fashioned methods to get by. While Dr. Givings examines an uncomfortable patient in his office, people finger a piano in the living room.

Sarah Ruhl’s wordplay is often hilarious, but she also gets downright poetic. The play questions soulless, mechanical sex. Leo muses that a light without a flame is not divine, and Mrs. Givings prophesies that future fireflies will be electric. The lyrical dialogue of In The Next Room gave me playwright envy. The plot has a darkly comical edge. There’s a fine line between being electrified and electrocuted, between delight and discomfort. These characters marvel at the literal electricity passing between them. However, the true charge comes from within, or as Walt Whitman once dubbed it in his poem I Sing the Body Electric: “the charge of the Soul.” Science has yet to unlock that mystery.

Loosen your corset strings before you go to the theatre: I’m sure you’ll get a buzz out of this daring production.

In the Next Room runs until March 2 at Theatre Inconnu, 1923 Fernwood Road (across from The Belfry). Tickets available for purchase online or over the phone at 250.360.0234.


Reviewer Leah Callen is a budding poet-playwright-screenwriter studying at the University of Victoria.