This isn’t a play for nervous giggling — it’s a play for belly laughs, perhaps even bellowing or cackling.
In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) is a comedy of manners about sex, among other things, written by Sarah Ruhl, one of the most produced American playwrights in the last 20 years. Following a more serious start to the season, Artistic Director Art Rotch said Perseverance Theatre is excited to lighten things up.
“We wanted a funny play after Othello, Sweeney Todd, and Our Voices Will be Heard,” Rotch said. “This play is hilarious, as is Annapurna, coming next.”
It’s also heartfelt, romantic and at times serious.
The play is set in the Victorian era, with gentleman, physician and inventor Dr. Givings creating a device to treat “hysteria” by inducing “paroxysms.” The doctor’s wife’s interests are piqued.
Director Carolyn Howarth has returned to Juneau from Grass Valley, California, for the third time to direct In the Next Room. Her previous productions include The Importance of Being Earnest and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. She said she keeps coming back because of Juneau’s charm, and she just can’t say no to long-time colleague Rotch.
The challenge in this play — and in so many others - is balancing the humor and the more serious themes.
“I think balancing the different themes in this play - from funny to serious - is no different than in any other play. I strive to find the ‘human-ness’ of the story; to find the heart,” Howarth said. “We humans have the capacity to be both tragic and hilarious at the same time, so really I just try to find the truth and tell that story.”
She added that “it helps to surround myself with a bevy of accomplished and talented designers, actors, and technicians who are all striving for the same thing.”
In addition to its humor, the play was selected as one that would be a good fit for many of Perseverance Theatre’s favorite Alaskan actors, many of whom were cast.
The cast includes Juneau actors Christina Apathy as Mrs. Givings, Katie Jensen as Anne the Nurse and Actors in Residence Enrique Bravo and James Sullivan as Leo Irving and Mr. Daldry respectively. Margeaux Ljungberg returns to the theatre from Skagway to play Mrs. Daldry, and Tiffany Cooper comes from Anchorage to play Elizabeth. The six are joined by Torsten Hillhouse from New York as Mr. Givings.
The cast had to practice more than their lines for this play — Howarth said managing the elaborate clothing of the time presented its own challenges in the context of the play.
“Certain characters must undress to their underthings and with the amount of buttons and petticoats and bustles and corsets, etc. it took us a lot of rehearsal hours just timing out how to get all those things off and then back on again in a proscribed amount of time,” Howarth said.
It was the greatest difficulty in presenting the play’s sexual content.
As mentioned, the play is about sex, as well as romantic love and the naïvete surrounding women’s health and medicine in general at the time. It’s where most of the humor in the play comes from.
“We’ve certainly come a long way since then,” Howarth said. “We dress differently. Our technology is completely different. This play mines a lot of humor from looking at how innocent we used to be.”
Despite its setting in another era, some may find parallels to modern concerns and debates around women’s health.
A Texas representative, who co-authored a bill imposing challenging limitations on clinics providing abortions, was interviewed recently on a late night show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. His understanding of the procedure was inaccurate, leading him to counter: “I’m not a doctor, I don’t know…”
Right here in Alaska, a bill passed the Senate banning “abortion providers” from providing sex education in schools. Another bill creates a punishment for educators who use sex education materials provided by entities that provide abortions.
Rotch notes that Perseverance Theatre is an arts organization, not a political organization, so they “try to not take a particular side or point of view, though individual writers we produce doubtless have their own views that come through in their work.”
The theatre’s goal is that when an issue of a political nature is broached, it is explored from all sides.
“At the end of the day, a theatre ticket should be the doorway for attendees to have a shared experience about some aspect of the the human condition, which is about far more than politics,” Rotch said.
In the Next Room opens March 11 and runs through April 3 at Perseverance Theatre at 914 Third Street in Douglas. Tickets are available now at Hearthside Books and the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council, online at PTalaska.org, or by calling 907-463-TIXS (8497).