To passersby, the startling noises spilling from Laurel Mill Playhouse during its current run of Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)" may seem curious even for the lively little theater on Main Street.
The first of Ruhl's plays to open on Broadway, "In the Next Room" debuted at the Lyceum Theatre in Manhattan a mere two years ago, earning a Tony nomination for Best Play in 2010. The show was also selected as a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.
Directed here by Michael Hartsfield, the adult comedy revolves around a Victorian doctor who treats female "hysteria" by using an electrical instrument to "relieve the congestion" in their wombs.
Frequent, high-pitched buzzing sounds come from an antique vibrator —an authentic medical apparatus that serves as the central plot device. The primitive contraption looks like something that could easily have been used to build Eric Henry's artful set.
And the other sounds are … well, quite funny, but mature arts patrons should see for themselves.
Set in the late 1800s, the story begins at the home of the well-to-do Dr. and Mrs. Givings, expertly portrayed by George Tamerlani and Paula Rich. The Givings have just had electricity installed in their parlor and in the "next room," where Dr. Givings practices gynecology.
A young mother left alone much of the time, Catherine Givings suffers pangs of loneliness and insatiable curiosity when she hears bewildering sounds through the locked door that separates the treatment room from her parlor.
Dana Medford pays close attention to the anomalies of her character as Mrs. Sabrina Daldry, a fragile young wife diagnosed with hysteria who hides under a veiled hat. And Brian Binney is cheerfully convincing as Mr. Daldry, a prowling, insensitive husband eager for Sabrina to resume her marital obligations.
He leaves Sabrina to Dr. Givings, who begins administering regular treatments with the help of a stalwart assistant, Annie, played with intuitive compassion by Ann Turiano.
Catherine Givings has been having trouble breast-feeding. Dr. Givings judges her milk unsuitable and hires the Daldrys' African-American housekeeper Elizabeth, played quietly by Nikki Smallwood, as a wet nurse. The two women bond through shared grief; Elizabeth mourns the loss of her own baby as Catherine laments what she believes is her inadequacy as a mother.
Eric Henry ably joins the cast as Leo Irving, one of Dr. Givings' patients and a painter who convinces Elizabeth to pose for him while nursing the baby.
All of the actors deliver inspired performances as the play progresses through a series of interesting developments.
The comedy is about marriage and intimacy (and electricity), but it explores many aspects of Victorian women's lives. The provocative script tackles so many deep themes — repressed sexuality, infant mortality, femininity, and self-love, just to start — that the plot becomes a little convoluted in the second act.
Even so, Ruhl's formal English and lovely contrasting symbolisms — light, dark, water, snow, science, and art — underscore a poetic innocence, lending demure charm to the intellectual comedy.
The visual elements created by the production designers, such as Kim Delk's beautiful and intricately complex Victorian costumes, Hartsfield's exceptional lighting and Henry's well-dressed set fit the show seamlessly.
Hartsfield's greatest challenge is staging the two rooms side-by-side in a very limited space, the effort succumbs to a few blocking tangles on the rare occasions when more than three characters occupy the treatment room.
But his ensemble production is so lovely that this seems a small price to pay for bringing such an exciting show to the Playhouse stage.
At times, audience members must decide which side of the stage to watch; the parlor where characters are interacting or the treatment room, where Sabrina's tasteful disrobing scenes are undoubtedly the most erotic in the play. And then there are the distractions of "paroxysms."
There is no nudity or language, but everything happens in full view, and the graphic nature of the play's mature themes make it inappropriate for children.
Laurel Mill Playhouse's "In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)" comes with a "parental guidance" warning for mature content. It continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Nov. 20, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on Nov. 13 and 20, at 508 Main St. General admission is $13. Students, 18 and younger; and seniors, 65 and older, pay $10. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2.