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In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOHN BARROIS

As the title of In The Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) suggests, playwright Sarah Ruhl is not the least bit shy about the raciness of the subject. Director Aimée Hayes teases out a flurry of entertainingly awkward moments as well, but the work is a smart exploration of intimacy, and rousing performances by the entire cast make it an exciting opening to Southern Rep's season.

  A funny reference to a barbaric demonstration — Thomas Edison's electrocution of an elephant at Coney Island on Jan. 4, 1903 — offers the only clue to exactly when the play is set. Dr. Givings (Shad Willingham) is both a physician and an inventor, having created an electronic vibrating device to treat women for hysteria. In the medical office in his home, he and his nurse assistant Annie (Morrey McElroy) bring patients to a state of "paroxysm," helping them relieve stress and release "juices" bottled up in their lower abdomens. He is helping usher in a modern age of technology, innovation and self-discovery.

  The other room on the split stage is the Givings' living room, where Ms. Givings (Katherine McClain) chats with the various patients seeking relief, including an artist (Clint Johnson) who also seems to be suffering from hysteria. The doctor otherwise keeps his practice separate from his marriage. He wouldn't think of crossing the ethical line of treating his own wife, but he views her in clinical terms anyway. They have a baby, and he doesn't believe his wife's milk is sufficient, so they hire a wet nurse to care for the infant.

  What most of the people in the play actually suffer from is the suffocating mores of the Victorian-era. It's hard to imagine how people came to be so estranged from their own bodies and desires, and the play considers some alternatives to the constraints of traditional marriage. Mr. Daldry (Jason Kirkpatrick) brings his wife Sabrina (Lucy Faust) for treatment, afraid she'll never bear him children. The painter's complications include being bothered by bright light so much he could lose the ability to pursue his creative passions. And Dr. Givings seems incapable of diagnosing let alone applying his scientific mind to the emotional gap between himself and his wife. The naïvete about what Givings' therapy actually does versus the patients' desire for fulfilling relationships is pushed to the point of high farce. The mechanics of both repression and release are smart and funny. Ruhl's play is as compassionate as it is cleverly written. It gets punny at times, but never wincingly bad.

  By the time the wet nurse (Kesha Bullard) unloads some rage and grief, it's both a stunning moment and a bit overdue. The play's climax, however, seems a bit rushed, though it manages both to surprise and satisfy. Among the many fine performances are Johnson's expressive artist, Bullard in her moments of candor, Willingham for his assured and pompous Dr. Givings, Faust for the awakening Sabrina, and McClain for her excitable character. — Will Coviello

Thru Sept. 26

In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)

8 p.m. Thu.-Sat.; 3 p.m. Sun.

Southern Rep, The Shops at Canal Place, third floor, 365 Canal St., 522-6545; www.southernrep.com

Tickets $29-$35

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