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Miami’s “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play” is Fun, Compassionate

Review by Shawn Maus of In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play: Miami University

Theresa Liebhart and Jessica Filkill in "In the Next Room"

Theresa Liebhart and Jessica Filkill in “In the Next Room”

In our internet porn age, it’s hard to imagine there was a time that men and women didn’t really know their own bodies. “In the Next Room” explores themes of sexual ignorance, eroticism and, of course, how “technology” can “cure” all of that.

The historical dramatic comedy tells the story of Dr. Givings (Adam Joeston) who is an early proponent of a new electrical machine designed to treat female hysteria, and his wife Mrs. Givings (Jessica Filkill), a young mother who gradually becomes more and more curious about the device in the next room and craving adventure and more intimacy with her husband. In the late 19th century, many women (and a few men) were treated for hysteria with an electrical vibrator.

There are many themes in Sarah Ruhl’s play, some that get lost and find their way back again, but the actors are professionals who carry off their roles in spite of script complications. The second act of the script flutters and tries to cram too much in. Again, this is a problem with the script, not the actors.

Jessica Fikill’s portrayal of Mrs. Catherine Givings is compelling. She delivers a kinetic energy creating a quirky little schoolgirl at times (in the scene where she convinces one of her husband’s patients to show her what happens in the next room) but then she is charming and a perfect study in Victorian womanhood at the dawn of a new century.

Joeston brings a “comedy of errors” sense of humor to the simple, droll Dr. Givings, interested in the needs of his patients but clueless about the desires of his wife.

Theresa Liebhart’s Mrs. Sabrina Daldry delivers a wild ride between staunch Victorian propriety and turbulent hysteria. David DeVita gives a performance worthy of Oscar Wilde. Myka Lipscomb, always a delight, gives a strong performance as Elizabeth who almost brings the audience to tears over the loss of her baby and her faith, but never allows her story to become a cliche of the plight of a poor, passive black woman.

Stunning costumes designed by Melanie Mortimore adorn the performers and could rival Downton Abbey. Changes on stage with layer upon layer of hooks, snaps and ties consume paragraphs of dialogue, serve as a metaphor for the restrictions and frustrations of the characters, and yet provide a deep appreciation for the time, care, and attention brought to the costume design.

An outstanding production design by Gion DeFrancesco is complete with delightfully artful detail of the living space and the doctor’s “home office” operating room. It is interesting to note that there are no walls to physically bind the space perhaps alluding to the walls of the social mores of the time that are about to come tumbling down.

Director Ann Elizabeth Armstrong has attracted an exceptional cast of brilliant Miami actors and technicians. She directs the play with a finesse that can poke fun at controversial subjects, but also brings light and warmth to a subject that is still relevant to our own time – technology affects our bodies and influences those around us.