Sunday, March 11, 2012

Vibrating Sarah Ruhl

In The Next Room at the Stiemke

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Matthew Brumlow and Cora Vander Broek in Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room or the vibrator play. Photo by Alan Simons.

I’ve never been terribly impressed with Sara Ruhl as a playwright. Whether it’s The Clean House or Eurydice or Dead Man’s Cell Phone, he work always comes across like a writing assignment. Find the topic, do the necessary research to write the script and then develop it. As nice as it is, its never terribly inspired work. Thankfully, for In The Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), the script doesn’t need to be terribly inspired. All it has to do is be pointed in the right direction. As people generally don’t think about the birth of the vibrator, the subject matter is novel enough that it doesn’t matter that there’s no spark of inspiration in the script—no brilliant sense of storytelling.

The Milwaukee Rep stages its production of the show now through April 22nd in a co-production with the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Milwaukee Rep Resident Actor Laura Gordon pulls together a really good cast for the production. Laura Gordon keeps the rhythm moving along quite nicely from beginning to end. The action of the play slows down in all the right places without every feeling too slow. Grant Goodman plays a sexually repressed doctor who uses a VERY early model vibrator to treat, “hysteria.” The doctor’s office is in his home. In one room his wife socializes with patients while the good doctor gives them orgasms in the next room. Kind of a bizarre concept, but this is a very true part of history that can be fascinating to watch onstage as a document of an era when electricity was only just becoming available to everyone. Characters long for the more natural light of candles. It’s a charming point in the past that’s interesting to visit.

As there is nothing terribly compelling about the characters themselves, Ruhl hands the actors the challenge of making the characters themselves interesting. With Laura Gordon directing, the script is in remarkably good hands. Goodman plays a character who seems charmingly ambiguous to much of the world around him. Cora Vander Broek is irresistible as the doctor’s wife—a woman full of vitality who languishes outside the attentions of her husband. Duly bored, she engages nearly every other character in the play at one point or another just to try to keep herself feeling alive. Vander Broek is good with that kind of restlessness.

Easily my favorite performance here has to be Matthew Brumlow—an artist. He’s one of those rare males who could be diagnosed as suffering from hysteria. His passion makes him one of the more readily sympathetic characters for the average 21st century theatergoer. He is not repressed like the rest of the characters in the play . . . inadvertently I found myself seeing the play through his eyes, which is a bit odd as this is an ensemble piece with Goodman and Vander Broek are really the center of this ensemble. It is their story of lost romantic connection restored that serves as the center to a solidly enjoyable drama. 

 

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of In the Next Room or the vibrator play runs through April 22nd at the Stiemke Studio Theatre. For ticket reservations, call 414-224-9490.

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