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Sarah Ruhl’s ‘In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play’ returns to Chicago at Timeline Theatre. Directed by Mechelle Moe, this drawing room comedy about the advent of electricity is sure to tickle audiences. Ruhl’s works have often been produced around the city as she’s an Evanston native. She may reside in Brooklyn now, but we’ll still claim her as our own.

‘In the Next Room’ was shortlisted for the 2009 Pulitzer after a successful Broadway run. It was also nominated for the 2009 Tony Award for Best Play. ‘In the Next Room’ might just be Ruhl’s most fully realized play. It’s a whimsical, if not loose, history of the invention of the vibrator. While it may sound like a cheeky sex comedy, ‘In the Next Room’ is a feminist anthem.

Dr Givings (Anish Jethmalani) is a country doctor who specializes in hysteria, a very real condition that afflicted women during a much less sexual period in history. His wife Catherine (Rochelle Therrien) does not suffer as her husband’s patients do, but instead yearns for romantic love. In some ways, this play is like Sarah Ruhl’s own version of ‘A Doll’s House.’ A wife searching for her purpose in a world dominated by men. Catherine says at one point “I do not know what kind of person I am” and feels like a failure when her child will not nurse. Through various entrances and exits, we’re shown how sexless life was between man and wife during the Victorian era. As an audience with hindsight, we understand that this miracle cure for hysteria is nothing more than a medically induced orgasm.

The ensemble is well cast. Rochelle Therrien makes Ruhl’s fanciful dialogue endearing and innocent. Her fresh-faced and child-like performance is so charming you can’t believe her husband’s indifference. Though quiet and understated, Dana Tretta plays Annie, the physician’s midwife. A sort of “Igor” sidekick type, but Ruhl doesn’t overlook the character. Her arch of a life without love is perhaps the most touching of all.

Not only is this play a feminist anthem, but a play about orgasms. The very idea that women did not discuss anything related to sex is absurd in a world where you can watch re-runs of ‘Sex and the City’ at any given time. Even nursing a child was considered distasteful to discuss. Rarely if ever have so many simulated orgasms happened in one theatrical performance. Though, like the era, they’re so unsexualized that you can’t help but giggle at the characters discovering themselves. In one full-length play Sarah Ruhl bursts nearly every female taboo of the time out of the closet. Never have Women’s Rights been a more hot button issue and ‘In the Next Room’ comes at just the right time.

Through December 16 at Timeline Theatre Company. Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont Ave. 773-327-5252

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Shattered Globe Theatre welcomes back one of Chicago’s own, Sarah Ruhl.  “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” is a new play making its Midwestern debut at Theater Wit. Ms. Ruhl is one of the country’s foremost playwrights right now. She has another new play, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,” currently running at the Lincoln Center in New York. Her work is often produced in Chicago usually directed by her friend Jessica Thebus. This is an especially personal production for Ruhl as it stars her own mother (Kathleen Ruhl) in the title role. 

 

No, this is not another warmed over incantation of the JM Barrie fairy tale. While somewhat influenced by the source material, “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” is a very realistic story of five siblings grappling with the death of their father. What begins in a depressing hospital room, moves to a whiskey-soaked conversation between siblings that eventually turns into a make-believe version of Peter Pan. 

 

At its core, this is a play about love. There are plenty of plays about dysfunctional families, and this isn’t one of them. What it boils down to are five adult children trying to pinpoint a time when they felt their father’s love. These siblings have differing political beliefs and Ruhl’s apt commentary about our current climate is especially sharp, without being polarizing. There’s a great deal of truth in the courtesy her characters show for one another’s opinions. She also spends a great deal of the play dissecting the role of Catholicism and whether or not there is an afterlife. Despite the volley of bittersweet and at times painful memories of their childhood, these characters love each other and that is felt in the dialogue and performances. 

 

Kathleen Ruhl is adorable as the oldest sister and former Peter Pan star, Ann. Perhaps it’s her relation to the playwright, or her commitment to character, but Kathleen Ruhl makes the audience question how much of this work is fiction and how much is fact? Eileen Niccolai, a Shattered Globe ensemble member, provides a lot of the humor, but also some of the more heartfelt moments as youngest sister Wendy. All the siblings are named for Peter Pan characters, which underscores Sarah Ruhl’s point that with their parents gone, they are orphans now and need to grow up. 

 

Like any Sarah Ruhl work, there is a great deal of whimsy. With each new work, Ruhl continues to keep one foot on the ground and one in the clouds. “For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday” is both prolific in its subject matter and also aesthetically striking it its presentation. The reality of the situation and the poignancy of the lines allows the audience to trust their narrator and fly when the time comes. 

 

Shattered Globe’s “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday is being performed at Theater Wit at 1229 W Belmont (773.975.8150) and has been extended through May 27th. 

 

 

 

 

 

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