Good Vibrations

OCP’s fantastic one-off socio-historical Vibrator Play could head to Blue Barn next

A staged reading of In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play reminded of a famous review of the film Citizen Kane. The critic apologized for telling readers how great it was because he feared they’d never get to see for themselves. They did, of course, when William Randolph Hearst failed to shut it down. The problem last Monday at the Omaha Community Playhouse was similar in some ways, different in others. Like the film critic, I was enthusiastic. I wanted the Sarah Ruhl play to be seen by more than the full house for its one-night stand in the Howard Drew. They wouldn’t be stopped from seeing it by a powerful media mogul, but that didn’t assure its availability here for theatergoers who would probably guarantee sold out performances. But it couldn’t play at the Playhouse for fear of offending too many subscribers. Other theaters might take the risk but not be up to the challenge of the topic. That left only the Blue Barn able to tackle such a tricky mix of gender sociology and sexuality. But would they be willing? A phone call to their Old Market office was answered by managing director Shannon Walenta, who offered promising words: “I’ve seen copies of the script around here.” Even better, artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer advised, “We’ve had the rights to it since last year.” Unfortunately, she saw a production in Kansas City that was apparently less impressive than the Playhouse reading directed by Amy Lane and starring one of the Barn’s founders, Kevin Lawler, as Dr. Givings. Set in the school gym created for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, with minimal props and no costumes, it worked its magic spell. Lane, the community theater’s resident director, believes “it’s a tricky play to direct” because the humor can degenerate to farce when it requires sensitive treatment of poignant situations arising from its 1880s setting, when women were not well understood by the likes of Dr. Givings. He treated “hysteria” with a mechanical device — yes, the vibrator of the title. He informs a patient, Mrs. Daldry played by Teri Fender, “We are going to produce in you what is called a paroxysm.” This play was part of the “21 & Over” series “for a 21st century audience,” and that demographic tends to call it “the Big O.” But Dr. Givings would be terribly offended that anyone would suggest any sexual significance to his effort to reduce “the congestion in her womb” by inviting “the juices downward.” Now is as good a time as any to confess that in describing this content I feel like a starlet on the “Tonight Show” rationalizing the storyline significance of her nude scene. I doubt that I can convince those who haven’t read Ruhl’s script that it tells a story of socio-historical value while leaving the audience in stitches. But, damn it, it does. Blame Lawler’s flat-toned scientific detachment, his clueless gravitas, as he explains his admiration for inventor Thomas Edison and electricity in general. Why, his wonderful machine will put the bloom back in the patient’s cheeks in minutes when it used to take, “oh, hours” for the doctor or his nurse Annie (Mary Kelly) to produce a paroxysm. When the patient seems shy about her response, Annie confides, “You don’t need to be ashamed.” She explains that the instrument has the same effect on all the women, who “sometimes laugh and weep at the same time. They often call for God.” And, indeed, Fender leaves the next room with roses on her cheeks and a smile on her face. So that’s the easy part: describing the act at center of the action. What’s harder, and what requires more detail than this story can provide, is to portray the intelligent insights into the relationship between the doctor and his wife, played brilliantly by Ashley Spessard. Or her connection to an artist (Tim Abou-Nasr) and a wet nurse (Beaufield Berry). Or to understand the problems between the patient played by Fender and her husband (Vincent Carlson-Brown). The good news is that the Blue Barn is very likely to produce the play, hopefully next season, and we’ll find out how they bridge the sizable gap between a staged reading and a full production. And it’s good news that the Playhouse will continue to present such staged readings: next up in April is The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, by Avenue Q playwright Jeff Whitty. And Lane has already cast such talents as Bill Hutson and Susie Baer Collins in her June reading of the award-winning August: Osage County by Tracy Letts. They’d better put it in the main auditorium.

posted at 11:15 pm
on Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

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