Ah, finally, a play to love -- a play to curl up with and relish like a romantic novel on a cold afternoon. Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play" uses the trappings of 19th-century melodrama to amuse and provoke our 21st-century feelings about the efficacy of science and technology in relieving a most ancient human need: intimacy.
Ruhl's characters are an eclectic gaggle, each with his or her own issues. Yet they all show symptoms of the same disease -- heartache -- and as artists and writers and composers have told us for centuries, love is the only cure. Love -- sweaty, earthy and exhausting love -- triumphs over the cold biology of rationalism.
Interestingly, director Sarah Rasmussen gives us this passionate tale in a production calibrated as clockwork at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. Bain Boehlke's elegant set splits the stage, showing us the fashionable 1880s parlor of Dr. and Catherine Givings and the sterile adjoining operating room. Often, two small plays occur simultaneously -- and Rasmussen uses an economy of movement that allows both scenes to breathe but not compete with each other. Actors move with intention, not aimlessly to create pace. That is the sign of a sharp and confident director, and Rasmussen's actors respond with perfectly pitched performances.
So much for the calculation of stagecraft. "In The Next Room" is about a doctor who uses the new invention of an electric vibrator to cure female patients of their hysteria. Dr. Givings (John Middleton) creates paroxysms (an orgasm by any other name) to restore vitality. Middleton's portrayal is perfectly dry, clueless and matter-of-fact. He is the rationalist, simply practicing medicine with a vibrating knob that loosens the womb of Sabrina Daldry (Emily Gunyou Halaas). Mrs. Daldry rises to the device but innocently enough begins to desire the human touch of Givings' assistant Annie (Annie Enneking).
Meanwhile, on the living room settee, Catherine Givings (Christina Baldwin) is desperate. Unable to feed her baby because of a deficiency in milk production, she gives up that relationship to a wet nurse (Austene Van). Unsure what to do with herself, she chatters and flits, or begs the good doctor's patients to stay and sit with her. Alone with her husband, she cannot crack his clinical facade.
In sum, this is a woman urgently in search of something -- anything -- that will remind her she is alive.
Van's Elizabeth has her own broken heart and Ryan Underbakke is Leo Irving, the rare man afflicted with hysteria, who becomes something of a rooster in the henhouse.
Ruhl's point with this comic bunch is quite serious: Humans need to be loved, not just -- hmm, how to put it? -- pleasured.
Rasmussen gets this, and she lingers over each character. Van and Enneking play smaller roles, for example, but they bring vast emotional depth to the needs of Elizabeth and Annie.
Were you to shake Ruhl's script, it would produce some chaff. It could be leaner, but this should not keep you from savoring a lovely piece of work.
Every aspect of the Jungle's production is exquisite, although it would be a crime not to single out the dresses of costumer Moria Sine Clinton.
And the final scene, staged and dressed on Boehlke's set, is nothing short of magic. To reveal more would curdle the beauty.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299