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Victorian era’s shown in new light in witty ‘Room’

Dr. Givings (Mark L. Montgomery) tries console his wife (Kate Fry) “In Next Room or vibrator play.”

Dr. Givings (Mark L. Montgomery) tries to console his wife (Kate Fry) in “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play.”

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the Vibrator PLAY’


◆ Through Oct. 9

◆ Victory Gardens
Biograph Theatre,
2433 N. Lincoln

◆ $20-$50

◆ (773) 871-3000;

Updated: November 30, 2011 12:18AM

Sarah Ruhl has one of the smartest, quirkiest, most mischievous and poetic minds around. And she has put that mind to extraordinarily good use in “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play,” a work whose title easily attracts attention.

Clearly, a bit of foreplay is in order here, and it comes in the form of science, history AND sex. Ruhl has set her play — now in its Chicago debut in director Sandy Shinner’s gleaming, funny, aptly neurotic and ultimately passionate production for Victory Gardens Theatre — in the 1880s, in a well-to-do New York spa town.

It’s important to know two things about that period. First, this was when Thomas Alva Edison’s incandescent electric light bulb came into use. Second, this was when childbirth still could be perilous, when attitudes about female sexuality were still under a Victorian era veil, and when physicians used vaginal massage to alleviate the “feminine hysteria” one Dr. Sigmund Freud and others were theorizing about in Europe. And oh, yes, a handheld motorized vibrator also had recently been invented.

Obviously all this has the makings of a perfect storm of sex, electricity, early psychiatry and many confused notions about what generates passion, pleasure, creativity and the life force itself. Look more closely, and you will realize “In the Next Room” is actually a very sophisticated farce (the dramatic form fueled by sexual hysteria), though it’s a door-slamming (and locking) farce only Ruhl could have devised. Thanks to that utterly sublime actress Kate Fry — a peerless treasure of the Chicago stage — it is elevated to the level of deep, feverish tragicomedy.

The insanity occurs in the home of Dr. Givings (an ideally smug Mark L. Montgomery), and his wife, Catherine (Fry), who recently has given birth to their first child. The doctor’s office, in “the next room” of their home, is where his patients — mostly women (but the rare male, usually an artist) — receive the “electrical treatments” that he, or at times his highly intelligent and sober nurse, Annie (a very droll Patricia Kane), administer.

The doctor’s new female patient is Sabrina Daldry (the winningly off-kilter Polly Noonan), a sad, musical, nervously repressed woman brought to the office by her insensitive husband (Lawrence Grimm, who’s just right). The male patient is Leo Irving (a wonderfully effusive Joel Gross), a handsome young English painter bereft over the loss of the Italian woman who had been his lover.

Meanwhile, the beguiling, talkative, sensuality-starved Catherine also is in despair, because she must hire Elizabeth (the lovely, perfectly composed Tamberla Perry), a black wet-nurse, to feed her baby, and because her husband never fully engages with her. (Jacqueline Firkins’ superb costumes suggest the fashion barriers of the age.)

Along the way, almost everyone laughably “befriends” or attempts to “befriend” someone unexpected, as Ruhl muses on the different mentalities of scientists and artists, men and women, and various combinations of these. And in her winking look at all things human, and maybe even a bit divine, her sense of Victorian decorum and utterly modern frankness stir sparks.

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