‘In the Next Room’ explores issues of gender, intimacy

by Jessica Zischke | 11/9/14 5:57pm

One door separated the stage into two rooms and two worlds. Dr. Givings’s operating room, where he treats women for hysteria using an electrical vibrator, took up one side of the stage, while the living room, most often depicting Mrs. Givings and her relationships, existed on the other.

Set in the 1880s at the dawn of electricity, Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play),” first performed in 2009 and this fall’s mainstage production, is a comedy that explores topics including the role of sexual intimacy in love, gender roles and sexuality. Although the setting may make the play feel antiquated, the issues that it raises remain relevant.

“It’s an interesting time to explore these things because the gender norms were much more extreme than they are today, although they certainly still do exist today,” Max Samuels ’15, who plays Dr. Givings in the play, said. “It’s a really cool lens through which to examine things that we still grapple with today, particularly love versus intimacy, gender dynamics and also work versus play and work versus family.”

The main storyline involves Dr. Givings and his wife, Mrs. Givings, played by Emma Orme ’15. While Dr. Givings is treating a number of patients and, on a medical level, getting rather intimate with them, his relationship with his wife lacks sexual intimacy. Relationships between characters explore important themes like race, sexuality and loneliness or lack of connection.

Director and theater professor Jamie Horton put forth the idea to perform “In the Next Room” because of its abundant and developed female roles, and also because it would serve as a nice complement to the upcoming winter production of “Romeo and Juliet,” he said.

About six months ago, Horton began talking with various designers working on the production to conceptualize the play and discuss how they would bring it to life. Auditions took place during the first week of classes, with rehearsals kicking off the following week and lasting until last Friday’s opening night.

The first week of rehearsals consisted of doing table work, where the actors read through the play and asked questions about it. The week was crucial for laying the groundwork for the actors, Orme said.

“I really felt intellectually involved in the themes of the play,” she said. “Sometimes at Dartmouth that intellectual involvement lasts too long, to the detriment of the practical, of the acting, of the craft. And I feel like that wasn’t the case with this [production].”

This process of exploration, which continued during the following weeks of rehearsals, is one of the best parts of pulling a production together, Horton said.

“The most rewarding thing for me is to work with a group of student actors on a wonderful play and help them to arrive at a greater understanding of the craft, of their own acting and of acting in this particular play,” Horton said. “That process of discovery is really what’s most exciting to me about theater, period.”

And for Samuels, the discovery never ends. He found that there was always more to learn through each round of rehearsals, he said.

“I believe the hope is that you never totally figure [the characters] out, because when you do, the performance sort of stagnates and there’s no longer any play involved,” Samuels said. “I think it’s nice to always be looking for the next thing.”

However, this complexity in characters can also bring up challenges when the experiences of the character diverge from one’s life experiences. For Orme, this came up in the relationship between Mrs. Givings and her newborn child, whom she cannot feed because her breast milk is unhealthy.

“That is an emotional vocabulary that I don’t have yet,” Orme said. “I think there are a lot of ways of transferring that sort of deep love you have in relationships, like to your brother or something that I know to this. But it’s been pretty hard to understand what that must be like to not be able to feed your child, and really be afraid that your child’s going to die because of you.”

Because of the play’s divided nature and the separation visible on the stage itself, another issue, Horton said, has been working to focus the audience’s attention on the storyline that is most important at that point, Horton said.

The audience’s presence helps bring out the piece’s comedic nature, Samuels said. During the last rehearsal before opening night, the actors played into the comedy more, said Cristy Altamirano ’15, assistant director and dramaturg.

“The cast really picked up on all of the comedy in the second act specifically,” she said. “It had been there, but they hadn’t really felt it and [that] was the first night that they were really going for it.”

Having an audience gave the actors the chance to feed off of the audience’s energy and reactions. At this time, it becomes the actors’ show, Altamirano said. The performances will vary as the audience-actor dynamic changes each night.

“I’m excited to see how [the play] grows and develops as the actors get to perform it for an audience,” stage manager Margot Yecies ’15 said. “It’s nice for performances to get set free. You stop nitpicking at the little things, and you just kind of let it go.”

Samuels said that he hoped audience members would be moved in some way by the play and by the topics it explores. “In the Next Room” allows for reflection of one’s beliefs regarding these themes.

“I hope [some of the provocative issues] surface with people, even if it’s sort of a back-of-the-mind thing,” Samuels said. “Maybe they’re just slightly more aware of the role gender plays in our society today or the role work versus play plays into society, et cetera. I think if it turns on a little switch, that’s all we can really ask for.”

Performances will take place in Moore Theater on Nov. 13-15 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 16 at 2 p.m. An informal discussion with Horton and cast members will take place after the Nov. 14 production.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction appended (Nov. 10, 2014):

Altamirano is the assistant director and dramaturg, not the assistant stage manager and dramaturg. The article has been corrected.