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Brandeis alumn returns to Hub in Broadway play

10/6/2010, 11:10 a.m.
Lindsay McWhorter in a scene from the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play),” running now thru Oct. 16 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., in the South End. For tickets and more information, call 617-933-8600. Stratton McCrady

Whatever she does next on stage, McWhorter is very positive about the Boston theater scene.

Even the most demanding theatergoers should approach “In the Next Room” with the same kind of optimism. If you were ready to write off Ruhl after her emotion-lite “Eurydice” and fantasy gone wild “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” think again. As with her earlier “A Clean House,” “In the Next Room” puts much more of a premium on vivid characterization and story development.

Admittedly, the use of electricity and vibrators  by Dr. Givings to deal with what he perceives as hysteria in initially subdued wife Sabrina Daldry and impassioned painter Leo Irving may seem like a gimmick to some audience members. Admittedly, the moments when Sabrina and Leo respectively reach an orgasm perceived by Givings as an emotional release do result in some early audience laughter. But the play is not a silly excuse for sexual situations.

Ruhl’s use of this actual late 19th century treatment both serves as a contrast to the emotional and sexual fulfillment that Catherine seeks with her husband and a catalyst for varied degrees of soul-searching by Sabrina, Leo and eventually the doctor’s wife.

Theatergoers will find much more to identify with in “In the Next Room” than in “Eurydice” or “Cell Phone.” Under  Scott Edmiston’s smartly paced direction, Anne Gottlieb makes a very convincing journey from frustration to exploration and self-discovery interacting with even more reserved Sabrina and finally with her hitherto clueless doctor husband. Marianna Bassham develops persuasively from initially veiled patient to self-assured wife and woman.

Derry Woodhouse catches all of Ruhl’s sympathy for Dr. Giving’s commitment to medical science as well as his final blossoming as a husband.  Best of all are Craig Wesley Divino’s exuberant work as passion-embracing Leo and Lindsey McWhorter’s richly restrained performance as emotionally secure Elizabeth.

A strong design team complements Ruhl’s insights. Susan Zeeman Rogers does well articulating the contrast of the two room set. Gail Astrid Buckley’s costumes capture the evolving personalities of the characters. Karen Perlow’s nuanced lighting for a pivotal garden scene helps to take it to the level of epiphany.

There may be moments when the play may seem too well structured. There are treatment scenes that could benefit from trimming. Even so, Ruhl’s Broadway debut resonates with warmly examined situations and characters. Bolt men and women should find “In the Next Room” an exhilarating eye-opener. SpeakEasy Stage’s 20th anniversary kickoff truly vibrates with feeling.