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Arts & Culture

Cellar production short-circuits 'In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play'

Photo: Dwayne Green, License: N/A

Dwayne Green

Heather Kelley and Chuck Wigginton in the Cellar's production of In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play.


What's the buzz? Well, for starters, the San Pedro Playhouse has inserted The Vibrator Play into its Cellar (ahem), and in some ways it's a competent production of Sarah Ruhl's critically acclaimed work. The evening boasts a handsome set by Alfy Valdez and Virginia Provencher, superior supporting performances by Ashtyn Sonner and Sam Weeks, and excellent period costumes by my Trinity colleague Jodi Karjala. The plot lights up at the dawn of electricity, as quasi-quack Doctor Givings "cures" hysteria by the application of mechanized vibration to women's genitals. The subsequent attraction of liquid is deemed a proper (if somewhat slick and messy) therapeutic response; Sarah Ruhl's comedy thus explores the collision of science and sexuality in 1880s New York. The piece, directed by Mindy Fuller, runs a bit long in its second act, and the pacing isn't optimal for its more farcical aspects; as Dr. Givings, Chuck Wigginton often misses the poker-faced lunacy of his character. Heather Kelley — as the repressed Mrs. Givings — is affecting in the more dramatic second act.

But here's the catch. The problem is that the enjoyable, drawing-room comedy now presented in the Cellar isn't quite the play that Sarah Ruhl wrote. It's a flattened, distorted version that changes important characteristics without a word of explanation and that will jeopardize San Antonio's reputation for responsibly producing contemporary plays. If Alamo City patrons can't trust the Playhouse to present new work as written, then an important contract between audience and artists has been breached.

First: Ruhl wrote the character of Elizabeth, the Givings' wet-nurse, as a specifically African-American character; her race is printed in the dramatis personae, and her background is a touchstone of the play, set after the Civil War. In the Cellar's production, Elizabeth is cast with an apparently white, possibly Russian actress (Julya Jara). Now, I'm hardly a purist when it comes to casting: if race isn't a theme of a play, then, sure, cast with a color-blind eye. I applaud that. But when a contemporary playwright does write about race, we're honor bound to obey that wish; we might not like it, but we must honor it. In order to excise Elizabeth's race from the play — a Playhouse representative reported that they tried but were unable to secure an African-American for the role — the production actually has to delete numerous passages that concern Mrs. Givings' prejudices about African-Americans; indeed, in the published version, Mrs. Givings is only appeased about hiring Elizabeth when forced to ponder the relative demerits of Irish Catholics and Negro Protestants (!). Furthermore, the Cellar's substitution of a white wet nurse makes nonsense of Elizabeth's scenes in the second act, in which she sits for a supposedly provocative portrait of "a Madonna after the Civil War." The Playhouse's bowdlerization only diminishes the complexity of the play, in which the yawning chasm of race in post-Civil War America is clearly set against the intimacies of its more privileged characters.

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