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Stage Review

An illuminating ‘In the Next Room’

From left: Marianna Bassham, Lindsey McWhorter, and Anne Gottlieb in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production. From left: Marianna Bassham, Lindsey McWhorter, and Anne Gottlieb in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production. (Stratton McCrady)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / September 22, 2010

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There’s an alternating current that runs through SpeakEasy Stage Company’s superb production of “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play),’’ and it doesn’t only have to do with the electrical device slyly tucked into that parenthesis.

Director Scott Edmiston illuminates the intriguingly variable moods of Sarah Ruhl’s play, which is set in the 1880s, in two scenes, the first of which occurs in a drawing room where three female characters listen, transfixed, to the desolate tune a fourth woman is playing on a piano. In that moment the women are together but also apart, each of them lost in private sorrows.

The second scene unfolds later, and it reveals two of those women in a moment of gleeful discovery, sisterly solidarity, and female empowerment. A doctor’s wife, Catherine Givings (Anne Gottlieb), and one of the doctor’s patients, Sabrina Daldry (Marianna Bassham), are sitting next to each other on an examining table, and they are laughing so hard it seems their sides will burst. You see, they have just discovered that they don’t need the doctor — or any other man — to use the device to administer a strangely pleasurable “electrical therapy’’ to themselves.

What do these women need men for? Well, that’s an interesting question, one of several that hang over this production as Edmiston expertly finesses Ruhl’s tricky balance of shadow and light.

There are laughs here, yes, and more than a little moaning and writhing, but theatergoers who assume that they’re in for an “I’ll have what she’s having’’ snicker-fest will find something richer, more layered, and more surprising in that next room.

Less surprising but still heartening are the virtuosic performances by Gottlieb and Bassham, who provide the backbone to a strong ensemble. Gottlieb brings all her protean skill to the character of Catherine Givings, filling out her emotional and psychological palette with shades of restlessness, longing, obliviousness, defiance, and insecurity.

Catherine is a woman who is chafing under the confines of what seems to be a passionless marriage to Dr. Givings (Derry Woodhouse) but also under the gender-based strictures of the era, and Gottlieb requires only the slightest flicker of her marvelously expressive face to signal which is which at any given time. As is often the case with this actress, it is a performance that is subtle and forceful at once.

Bassham’s Sabrina Daldry arrives at the good doctor’s office with her obtuse, mutton-chopped husband (Dennis Trainor Jr.), sunk in despondency. After diagnosing her as suffering from “hysteria,’’ Dr. Givings tries the newfangled approach, courtesy of a recent invention by Thomas Edison, of treating her with a vibrator. (Ruhl has drawn this treatment from historical fact.) The prim physician has no idea that the patient’s resulting “paroxysms,’’ as he calls them, reflect anything other than her being restored, treatment by treatment, to mental health. Which in a way is true.

Bassham’s flair for comedy, so evident in the Edmiston-directed “Reckless’’ at SpeakEasy Stage last year, is on display in these scenes. But she also invests Sabrina with the poignantly adrift quality she brought to her recent performance in “Gaslight,’’ at the Stoneham Theatre. Her portrayal of Sabrina communicates the sense of a woman searching for something that can’t be found in her marriage and may or may not be right there in the doctor’s examining room.

“In the Next Room’’ goes on a bit long; it could benefit from some judicious trims, especially in the second act. But its rewards outweigh its occasional longeurs.

Those rewards include the performance by Woodhouse, who plays Dr. Givings as a man so out of touch with the imperatives of the body that his own body seems like a particularly uncomfortable suit of armor. When he says “I love you’’ to Catherine, he might as well be reciting the periodic table. He literally backs away from her and her mystifying needs, retreating to the next room and what he calls “my dry, boring science.’’

As Elizabeth, an African-American woman who comes to work in the Givings household as a wet nurse to their child after losing her own baby, Lindsey McWhorter performs with an unshowy stillness that adds to the power of the moment, late in Act 2, when she gives passionate voice to her own pent-up grief. Able support is also provided by Frances Idlebrook as Annie, the assistant to Dr. Givings, and Craig Wesley Divino as a mop-haired artist who awakens long-buried feelings in Catherine Givings.

Part of the guessing game of “In the Next Room,’’ as we contemplate these four complicated women — Catherine, Sabrina, Annie, and Elizabeth — lies in wondering where their passions will ultimately flow. For one of them, the answer is a surprise, one we learn in a riveting final scene that produces the kind of electricity that only human beings — and great theater — can generate.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

IN THE NEXT ROOM (OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY)

Play by Sarah Ruhl

Directed by: Scott Edmiston. Sets, Susan Zeeman Rogers. Lights, Karen Perlow. Costumes, Gail Astrid Buckley. Sound design and original music, Dewey Dellay. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company.

At: Roberts Studio Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through Oct. 16. Tickets: $30-$55. 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com