Recently, I rather excitedly went to see the Sydney Theatre Company production of In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, by American playwright Sarah Ruhl. Ruhl is one of the most popular playwrights working right now, but I’d never seen anything of hers before, having intended to see the production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone with Lisa McCune in it and having missed it. (I know, I fail at being a theatre person; they may well take back my diploma one of these days.) I am rather a fan of Jacqueline Mackenzie, who plays the lead, and was rather excited to see her back on the Australian stage after eight years, having only encountered her on US television before. Also: vibrators.
The play is set in the 1880s New York home of the Givings family, where Dr Givings (David Roberts) takes patients “in the next room” over from the one dominating the set. He and his nurse (the fabulous Mandy McElhinney) mostly treat female patients suffering from “hysteria,” using this odd new vibrating invention. Mrs Givings is struggling with her inability to produce enough milk to feed their new baby, and she develops rapports of a kind with patient Mrs Daldry (Helen Thomson) and Elizabeth (Sara Zwangobani), the Daldrys’ housekeeper, who is brought in as a wet nurse. Relationships fall apart and are mended, characters come to own their sexualities, and Mrs Givings finds what she’s been missing in her life.
I was certainly not disappointed. Sarah Ruhl thoroughly deserves her reputation. It was a beautifully balanced script which threw out the right amounts of light and shade. I was particularly struck by the conversations around motherhood, faith, and divinity. And so much of it was very funny, the humour largely lying in contemporary sensibilities looking back on nineteenth century misconceptions and attitudes. I don’t want to spoil it for you, so I’ll just say that there’s a wonderful and sad queer thread running through the play. Everything is resolved, some parts of the story with resignation, some parts with something approaching contentment.
This was the first major production of the play outside of the United States, and what a great production it was. Mackenzie was pitch perfect as the confused, grieving, and (particularly racially) insensitive Mrs Givings. Zwangobani gave a solid and dignified performance as the wet nurse giving up her dead child’s milk for a white family. The whole cast was really good, but I’ll just mention Josh McConville as Dr Givings’ sole male patient, the easy physicality in whose performance was a real pleasure to behold. American accents were mostly shaky, but Mackenzie’s was pitch perfect (which we ought to expect given her recent professional history!). But the production designer, Tracy Grant Lord, really outdid herself with mouthwatering sets and truly beautiful period costumes (Thomson wore some gorgeous boots at which I could hardly stop looking).
Do go and see the play if you can. This production is touring in Melbourne, Wollongong, Canberra, and Parramatta after it leaves the Sydney Opera House.