‘In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play’ at Colonial Players by Amanda Gunther


It’s a kind of religious ecstasy to feel half blind, do you not think? The discovery of intimacy, sexual excitement and above all love; all of that wrapped up in a Victorian era comedy of scandalous proportions is what you’ll find rounding out the 64th season at Colonial Players as they present. In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play. An uproarious risqué comedy with touching emotional undertones, this play explores the wonder of scientific advancement in America in 1880. Directed by Carol Youmans, this witty sexual comedy engages the story of the Doctor whose new electric vibrator is designed to cure hysteria in women, a bright and hilarious production filled with laughs and some charming dramatic themes that make it a well rounded performance.

2013_05_in_the_next_room_logoSet Designer Edd Miller lays out Victorian America right before your eyes in the fancy house of Doctor Givings. With just the right amount of furnishings to appear elegant, Miller creates a perfect division between the sitting room and the operating theatre as well as the lovely conservatory decorated with hot house ferns and the lace draped piano. It’s an inviting atmosphere for this intimate in-the-round space and allows a sense of the period to permeate the space without being overwhelming.

Costume Designer Julie Bays augments the essence of the Victorian era with dapper suits and perfectly fitted bustle dresses. The color scheme used for Catherine is much cheerier than that used for Mrs. Daldry, her costumes appearing widow-like in nature, as if her hysteria is causing her great loss and sorrow. And the corsets that we see as the patients undress for their procedures are rather impressive as well. Bays’ approach to keeping the costumes refined yet simple helps the audience to hone in on the social standing of the characters.

Director Carol Youmans executes a production that is well-developed and clearly thought through. The blocking that Youmans uses to ensure that all players can be seen and heard at all times in this challenging in-the-round space is some of the best blocking I’ve seen utilized with this company. All of the performers are easily understood and the spatial layout of their movements about the set has a natural feel to it. Youmans encourages subtle hints of accents for Annie the Irish made and all three male actors, letting them drop slight English sounds into the speech patterns.

The acting as a whole in this production is impressive. Jokes are delivered with impeccable comic timing and the emotional moments of serious drama are placed perfectly into the mix without pause or preamble. This group of actors develops a keen sense of entanglement amongst themselves, letting the characters build natural relationships between them as the play progresses, rather than trying to force something. There is an organic aura the permeates the performance, drawing the audience into the reality of the spa town in the 1880’s.

Annie (Shirley Panek) speaks with a calm and soothing voice when she encounters the patients in the operating theatre. Panek exudes a gentle temperament, assuaging the fears and general discomfort of Mrs. Daldry in particular. The slight Irish-Scottish lilt in her voice adds to the calming effect of her overall presence. Panek guides the somewhat reserved housemaid character with a steady approach to her physicality and a grounded tranquility in her manner of speaking.

Mr. Daldry (Mark T. Allen) is encountered briefly and his interactions are categorized mostly by those that he shares with the lady of the Givings household. Allen is a proper gentleman, concerned and doting on his wife’s well-being despite having reached his tolerance threshold for her hysteria. He speaks in a peculiar manner, exemplifying his character’s quirks when interacting with Mrs. Givings, creating little moments of awkward pause that suite the mood splendidly.

Being the only male patient to suffer from hysteria, Leo Irving (Paul Valleau) brings a secondary level of uneasy humor to the production. His vocal responses to the treatment are hilarious, matching only his facial expressions when trying to politely ignore what’s happening to the patients in the other room while conversing with the lady of the house. Valleau brings a poetic presence to his character, his speech soothing and artistic in nature as he waxes on about Italy and love. He balances this persona precariously against the mania of being obsessed with painting once he begins to feel relief from his hysteria. His eyes are wild and his physical being hums with a sense of thrilling excitement that he’s desperate to keep contained within him; an unusually charming and intricate performance if ever there was one.

The inventor himself, Doctor Givings (Ben Carr) is a bit of an aloof if scientifically minded man. Carr presents undertones of vulnerability to an otherwise static character that make his performance truly exceptional. Although this revelation of being human and frightened by his own emotions and urges are not revealed until the end of the play, it makes watching him stalk about as a closed-off emotionally stunted man incredibly rewarding. Carr never deviates from the rigidity of his character’s scruples until he defects in the final moments, allowing for a glorious transformation to occur.

The star performers of this production are the two featured females, both with their own versions of hysteria. Mrs. Daldry (Erin Leigh Hill) is presented to us as a frail and terribly tormented character. She speaks with an urgent terror trembling in her voice, her persona nervous and excitable in a maddening manner. Hill babbles frantically about her hysteria, making her appear truly ill; this effect is doubled as it radiates outward in her weakened physicality. And the treatments expose a deeper layer of her character, causing such sudden and unexpected vocal and physical releases of tension that its alarmingly funny for all watching.

Hill’s interactions with Catherine (Lelia TahaBurt) are at first very formal and clipped. But as the treatments continue and she grows friendly with the lady of the house they open up to one another with a giddiness and eagerness to share. TahaBurt takes great comforts in the company of Mrs. Daldry and their play-by-play interaction of the treatments session with Catherine asking rapid fire questions and Mrs. Daldry returning them is an uproarious scene of amusement.

TahaBurt is practically two characters bundled up into one. The chipper and bubbly disposition of a woman that moves frantically about, speaking and gesturing a mile a minute juxtaposed against her somber melancholic persona that bemoans being a failed mother and desperately craves intimacy because she is so alone. These two embodiments manifest together in TahaBurt’s performance seamlessly, her ability to transition quickly from one to the other taking the audience on a roller coaster of a journey through her emotional instability. But her final scene of acceptance and forgiving is simply beautiful.

It’s a wonderful good time, a play about simply observing things when it comes right down to it. And what people often do not observe because their intellect prevents them from seeing it could fill a book, or in this case fill an afternoon at the theatre.

In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play is Colonial Players’ finest production of the season.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

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In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play plays through May 18, 2013 at Colonial Players — 108 East Street, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 268-7373, or purchase them online.

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One Response to ‘In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play’ at Colonial Players by Amanda Gunther

  1. Wamahdri Williams May 8, 2013 at 5:23 pm #

    I generally like the review and think it captures a good deal of the play and the wonderful effort by the director and cast (my daughter plays Elizabeth). However, I thought Mrs. Givings’s melancholy is tied to her inability to fully provide for her baby and the resulting need for a wet nurse – the arc of her development seems to be tied to her interaction with both Mrs. Daldry (Mrs. Givings’s curiosity about the sounds from Mrs. Daldry’s treatments is what draws her into a different relationship with Mrs. Daldry) and Elizabeth (the wet nurse). I thought it was key that Elizabeth gave an additional context to the vibrator in the shows title by talking about her experience with her husband. Elizabeth is the one character that perhaps one would today expect to suffer from “hysteria” from the tragic loss of her baby, but she is too grounded for that to happen and seems almost bemused by the goings on around her. She is a very interesting character and well played (I admit my bias). Finally, kudos to ALL members of the cast, the director and supporting crew. The play was wonderful.