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Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)” Is a 2010 Tony Award® and Pulitzer Prize Nominee

Annie (Julie Fishell) and Dr. Givings (Matthew Greer) employ a newfangled invention called a vibrator to treat Mrs. Daldry (Katie Paxton) for "female hysteria" (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Annie (Julie Fishell) and Dr. Givings (Matthew Greer) employ a newfangled invention called a vibrator to treat Mrs. Daldry (Katie Paxton) for "female hysteria" (photo by Jon Gardiner)

For its first main-stage production of 2011-12, PlayMakers Repertory Company will present In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) by critically acclaimed Wilmette, IL-born playwright Sarah Ruhl, who is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship ‘Genius Grant,” on Sept. 21-25, Sept. 27-Oct. 2, and Oct. 4-9 in the Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Dramatic Art. So, it is no surprise that Ruhl’s 2009 Broadway debut — In the Next Room — was a nominee for the 2010 Tony Award® for Best Play and a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

In preshow publicity, PlayMakers‘ producing artistic director Joseph Haj claims, “In the Next Room is written with the sensibility of a play by George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde, seen through the lyrical lens of one of America’s finest modern playwrights and presented with sets and costumes evocative of the Victorian era.”

The New York Times characterized In the Next Room as “spirited and stimulating,” and the Los Angeles Times described this provocative play as “Breathtakingly inventive … a modern masterpiece.”

Vivienne Benesch

PlayMakers Rep guest director Vivienne Benesch

“I first encountered [In the Next Room] when it was being produced at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York City in 2009,” recalled PRC guest director Vivienne Benesch in an in-depth interview for Triangle Theater Review. “… After seeing that production, I immediately got my hands on a copy of the script, so that I could indulge in the discovery of this beautiful new work. I was already a fan of some of Ruhl’s earlier work, especially Eurydice, her 2005 retelling of the Orpheus myth. I was thrilled when … Joe Haj invited me to direct In the Next Room at PlayMakers.”

The long-time co-artistic director of the renowned Chautauqua Theater Company and Conservatory of Chautauqua, NY adds, “In the Next Room grapples with the nature of real intimacy more profoundly and sensitively than any other contemporary play I have come across in a long time. As Ruhl looks at the relationship between physical connection — be it sexual, platonic, or maternal — and emotional connection, she spins a dramatic web that is not only moving but also smart, theatrical and extremely funny…. [It’s p]robably also important to note that the play contains some nudity and deals with adult content….

In the Next Room is a combination of hysterical sex farce, a delicate and life-affirming Chekhov play, and an Ibsen drama written from a very personal, female voice,” claims Benesch. “And there are wonderful characters to unearth, a great story, and even a beautiful coups de théâtre (which I won’t give away!)

“Sarah Ruhl is an exceptional craftsperson with a whimsical, profound creative voice. To me as a director, nothing is more exciting than that combination,” confesses Benesch, who won a 2005 OBIE Award for her performance as Dr. Cora Gage in Lee Blessing’s Going to St. Ives.

She adds, “Ruhl’s play asks genuine and provocative questions about the sources of our happiness as human beings. Set in the context of ‘the dawn of electricity,’ the play looks back at a time when new technology (in the form of the vibrator) was seen as an easy ‘cure’ for hysteria — much in the same way that modern-day gadgetry and science are now providing ‘cures’ for a myriad of contemporary dysfunctions. But Ruhl ultimately suggests that, in fact, back then and now, it is only human connection and self-knowledge that can start to make sense of our complex lives. I find the play both brave and inspiring in the way it grapples with this subject.”

Benesch says, “In the Next Room takes us back to the late 18th-century home office of Dr. Givings (Brooklyn, NY actor Matthew Greer), a progressive inventor who, with his new electrical ‘vibrating machine,’ is bringing relief to women — and even a few men– suffering from hysteria. Meanwhile, his energetic and curious wife Catherine (Kelsey Didion) languishes alone in the living room, guilty about not being able to breast-feed their new baby and feeling ignored by her husband, who seems far more engaged with his work than his wife. She soon becomes obsessed with discovering what is in fact happening ‘in the next room.’

“Against her husband’s wishes, Catherine befriends a few of the new patients who come through the house on their way in and out of ‘the operating theater’: the delicate and nervous Mrs. Daldry (Katie Paxton) and her boorish husband (PlayMakers regular Jeffrey Blair Cornell), as well as the romantic, soul-searching painter Leonard Irving (Matt Garner),” Benesch says. “The lessons learned with and through these new friendships, including another complicated relationship with Elizabeth (Dee Dee Batteast), an African-American wet nurse whom they hire, reveal a lot more than just scientific secrets. After some difficult trials and tribulations, the doctor and his wife ultimately ‘find’ each other through the direct electrical current: one heart to another. It’s a play of discovery … and self-discovery.”

Besides the performers named above, the cast also includes PlayMakers regular Julie Fishell as Dr. Givings’ middle-aged spinster nurse Annie.

Katie Paxton as Mrs. Daldry and Kelsey Didion as Mrs. Givings discover the joy of sex with the newly invented vibrator (photos by Jon Gardiner)

Katie Paxton as Mrs. Daldry and Kelsey Didion as Mrs. Givings discover the joy of sex with the newly invented vibrator (photos by Jon Gardiner)

Director Vivienne Benesch explains, “The play has a delicate balance of elements at work: farce, psychological realism, whimsy and drama. For the actors and for me as director, navigating our way through all this fertile territory is a great challenge. But the rewards of this complexity are multi-fold. The play keeps taking us all by surprise in the best ways!”

She adds, “The play’s action takes place in two adjoining rooms simultaneously and was most probably conceived with a traditional ‘proscenium’ stage in mind. Much of the comedy in the play is centered on the audience being aware of what’s actually going on ‘in the next room,’ whereas our heroine [Mrs. Givings] is not.

“Of course, the deep thrust configuration of the Paul Green Theatre does not allow us to put the two rooms side by side,” notes Benesch. “We have instead created more of an upstairs/downstairs setup that will allow all three sides of the audience to see both rooms at once. One of my challenges is making sure that the play’s complicated ‘ballet’ is seamless and that the audience is seeing all that they need to see at any moment.

“And of course, the aforementioned coups de théâtre … the end of the play calls for the set to ‘disappear and suddenly we are in a winter garden.’ Obviously,” says Benesch, “walls can’t disappear when there are no walls in your design … nor can furniture suddenly move when you’re in the round … but it has been an exciting creative process working with the entire design team — lights, costumes, set and, quite significantly, the sound designer — to find a magical way to tell the story.”

In addition to director Vivienne Benesch and PRC producing artistic director Joseph Haj, the PlayMakers Repertory Company creative team for In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) include assistant director Lauren Klingman, production manager Michael Rolleri, scenic designer Marion Williams, costume designer Anne Kennedy, lighting designer Scott Bolman, sound designer/engineer Ryan Gastelum, voice coach John Patrick, movement coach Craig Turner, dramaturg Jiayun Zhuang, and stage manager Charles K. Bayang.

Director Vivienne Benesch says that show’s action unfolds simultaneously in “the parlor room and adjoining ‘operating theater’ of Dr. and Mrs. Givings’ home. [Scenic designer] Marion Williams and I worked very hard to find a way to solve the ‘in the next room’ issue discussed above. I am thrilled with what we have come up with. I think the design not only serves the realism of the period — Marion and the incredible PlayMakers shops are doing a gorgeous job creating a detailed Victorian home — but it also embraces the sense of whimsy that the play suggests in its unusual shape and flow. [It’s] real and abstract at the same time.

Benesch adds, “The power of ‘light’ in all its forms is very present in this play and [lighting designer] Scott Bolman is excited to work on telling a beautiful story with it. There is a really interesting tension between the use (and need) of theatrical lighting for the production and the thematic and literal presence of the ‘new electricity’ called for in the play….

“[Costume designer] Anne Kennedy is a master with period costumes,” claims Benesch. “Her attention to color, texture, and detail is unparalleled. So, we know that there will be gorgeous costumes on display. And Anne has created some beautiful touches that will help tell the story of the two women’s self-discovery.

“In the case of In the Next Room,” Benesch says, “we have been able not only to concentrate on the beautiful designs of the characters’ outerwear, but equal attention has been given to many of the character’s underwear (another metaphor — actually quite literal in this case — for the encasement of a woman’s body in Victorian times).

“In our first week of rehearsal,” notes Benesch, “[costume designer] Anne [Kennedy] gave us a detailed lecture/demonstration about period underwear and how it worked; and a huge amount of time in rehearsal has been spent figuring out the timing of all the undressing and re-dressing in the play.”

In the Next Room director Vivienne Benesch quips, “Did I mention that I love the play? And how I wish I could be a fly on the wall listening in on conversations couples may have on the way home from the theater. I’d let whatever happens after that be their secret.”

SECOND OPINION: Sept. 26th CVNC (Classical Voice of North Carolina) review Jeffrey Rossman: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=5077; and Sept. 22nd Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel preview and Sept. 25th review, both by Katherine Proctor: http://www.dailytarheel.com/index.php/article/2011/09/in_the_next_room_explores_social_history_of_the_vibrator and http://www.dailytarheel.com/index.php/article/2011/09/the_vibrator_play_leaves_audience_satised, respectively.

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents IN THE NEXT ROOM (OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY) at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21-23 Previews, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 24 Opening Night, 2 p.m. Sept. 25, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28-30, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 1, 2 p.m. Oct.2, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 4-8, and 2 p.m. Oct. 9 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC 27514.

TICKETS: $10-$35, except $45 opening-night gala with post-play reception on Sept. 24th and $10 UNC Student Rush Tickets.

BOX OFFICE: 919/962-PLAY or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/.

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/843-2311, gerdts@email.unc.edu, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.aspx.

SHOW: http://playmakersrep.org/performances/event.aspx?id=4279fc69-b9a4-43c4-803b-8f6424f5b667.

UNC NEWS RELEASE: http://uncnews.unc.edu/content/view/4737/66/.

PRC BLOG: http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.

PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/.

VENUE: http://www.playmakersrep.org/aboutus/paulgreen.aspx.

PARKING/DIRECTIONS: http://www.playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo/.

NOTE 1: On Sept. 28th and Oct. 2nd, there will be FREE post-performance discussions with representatives of the show’s creative team, including designers, production staff, and/or actors.

NOTE 2: The Prologue Series, created by PlayMakers and the Chapel Hill Public Library (http://chapelhillpubliclibrary.org/), will present a pre-show conversation with a member of the PlayMakers creative team at the library at 12 noon on Oct. 1st (location TBA).

NOTE 3: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/) will audio describe the 7:30 p.m. Oct. 4th performance, which will also be sign-language interpreted.

NOTE 4: The Lucy Daniels Foundation (http://www.ldf.org/home/) and the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society (http://www.ncpsasoc.org/) will sponsor “Mindplay: A 50-minute Hour,” a FREE psychoanalytic discussion led by Theresa Yuschok, MD, after the 7:30 p.m. Oct. 8th and 2 p.m. Oct. 9th performances.

OTHER LINKS:

The Play: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_the_Next_Room_(or_The_Vibrator_Play) (Wikipedia) and http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?ID=484355 (Internet Broadway Database).

The Playwright: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Ruhl (Wikipedia), http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Off-Broadway Database)), and http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=398718 (Internet Broadway Database).

The Director: http://theater.ciweb.org/leadership/ (Chautauqua Theater Company), http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=69799 (Internet Broadway Database).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This preview is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line.

To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.

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