When Thomas Edison electrified America in 1882, he hardly could have known the benefits his invention would have for mankind. And, as it turned out, womankind.
South Coast Repertory is presenting an exhilarating example of the latter achievement with its latest offering, Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room." Lest anyone be unaware of the subject matter, she subtitles it "or the vibrator play."
The centerpiece of this 21st century envisioning of a late 19th century breakthrough is, indeed, a vibrator — or, as it's also called, "an electro-massage machine for curing disease at home." The cure in question, for hysterical conditions in women, is called a "paroxsysm," something Meg Ryan memorably illustrated in the movie "When Harry Met Sally."
Under the skilled direction of Casey Stangl (whose father must have been a rabid Yankees fan), "In the Next Room" turns back the clock to the Victorian period with its bustles, corsets and layers of undergarments. Procreation must have been quite difficult — once finally undressed, most participants would have been too exhausted to proceed.
The setting is the lobby and "treatment room" of a serious-minded doctor, so dedicated to producing pleasure in his patients he neglects that of his wife, who churns with frustration and just plain curiosity.
Andrew Borba is the soul of propriety as the medico, who even turns his head when his wife is undressing. But it's the wife — magnificently rendered by Kathleen Early — who captures this production, her priceless facial reactions magnifying a memorable performance.
The doctor's primary patient, an equally unfulfilled married lady, also is richly interpreted by Rebecca Mozo, whose "paroxsyms" in reaction to the treatments match those of the aforementioned Miss Ryan. SCR veteran Tom Shelton fills the bill as her clueless husband.
Since Early's character, a new mother, can't breast-feed successfully, a wet nurse (Tracey A. Leigh) is recruited and she delivers a terrific dramatic sequence near the end of the show. Ron Menzel enriches the entertainment as a wild and crazy artist who also benefits from the treatment, while Libby West completes the cast as the doctor's competent nurse.
Director Stangl and her splendid cast handle their touchy subject matter with humor both broad and subtle. They're supported in this mission by John Arnone's imposing 19th century setting, David Kay Mickelsen's elaborate costumes and Daniel Ionazzi's intricate lighting effects, electric light still being something of a novelty in the late 1800s.
"In the Next Room or the vibrator play" works equally well as a vintage satire or a modern comedy, its 21st century creativity smoothly incorporated into a 19th century story. Mature audiences will get a charge out of this one.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.
If You Go
What: "In the Next Room or the vibrator play"
Where: South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, and 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays until Oct. 17.
Cost: $28 to $66