Timeline Theatre Company has brought Sarah Ruhl’s IN THE NEXT ROOM, OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY back to Chicago in a moment in which it has undeniable relevance and impact—and a magnificent cast to carry out out Mechelle Moe’s direction. This play fundamentally contemplates one woman’s needs and wants in the wake of the invention of the electric light—and a new electrical invention designed to stimulate women’s bodies as a cure for hysteria. Through the journey of Catherine Givings (beautifully played by Rochelle Therrien in a charmingly, spirited, and ultimately deeply felt manner) as she contemplates her husband Dr. Givings’ (Anish Jethmalani) administrations of this new treatment in the next room, Ruhl opens up a window into a timely discussion about making women’s private desires openly expressed.
Though Ruhl’s play takes place in the 1880s—and scenic designer Sarah JHP Watkins and costume designer Alison Siple do a lovely job grounding the production in this moment—I was so struck by the freshness of the play’s content in light of the recent “Me, Too” social media movement. Here, Ruhl has given us a play that so deeply delivers the concept that women’s needs should be fulfilled and their concerns should be voiced.
And despite the fact that this is a lofty theme to contemplate, Ruhl has written the play with a gentle hand and a great deal of humor. I laughed out loud through much of the first act, in no small part thanks to the finely honed performances Timeline’s ensemble gives us here. As one of Dr. Givings’s patients, Melissa Canciller displays fantastic comedic chops as Sabrina Daldry, who is eager and open to receiving the treatment. Joel Ewing also has stellar comedic timing as her husband Mr. Daldry, and together the two actors have found a rhythm that is fittingly and hilariously out-of-sync. Jethmalani is delightful and harried as Dr. Givings, who seems to not quite understand the magnitude of his treatment device. Dana Tretta takes on the role of his assistant Annie, and her performance grows layered and vulnerable as the play goes on. Krystel McNeil in the role of the Givings’ wet nurse Elizabeth gives a performance that becomes increasingly heartbreaking and lovely.
Above all, this production belongs to Therrien. She is winsome and funny in the play’s early moments, and she wins the audience’s empathy immediately. Yet this is a performance that deepens and develops so much more emotional complexity as Therrien continues on in her character’s journey. She so keenly understands the arc that Ruhl has laid out, and she gives a performance that is an utter triumph.
Timeline chose a powerfully relevant moment to bring Ruhl’s timely, gentle, and simultaneously funny and heart-wrenching play to Chicago audiences. IN THE NEXT ROOM offers an evening full of both enjoyment and contemplation.
TimeLine Theatre Company’s IN THE NEXT ROOM runs through December 16 at Stage 773, 1225 West Belmont Avenue. Tickets are $42.50-$56.50. Visit TimeLineTheatre.com for more information.
Photo by Lara Goetsch