When Andrew Carnegie mapped out plans for libraries across America — including one now serving as the Carnegie Center in Covington — he probably never envisioned one of them as a venue for a play about issues of love and sexuality in the 1880s. But that’s what’s happening at the Carnegie (Nov. 4-20) when Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play is presented.
Here’s the story according to publicity for the show: “The age of electricity has dawned, and in a seemingly perfect Victorian home, a proper gentleman and scientist has invented an extraordinary new device for treating ‘hysteria’ in women: the vibrator. As his young wife struggles with their newborn daughter, a conflicted couple, a passionate artist and a grieving wet nurse enter their lives, shocking mannered society with unexpected amperes of love, attraction and the need for connection.”
Local director Ed Cohen is staging the show, a collaboration between the Carnegie and the drama program at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). Cohen has staged several productions there, as well as Big River for the Carnegie. But the regional premiere of In the Next Room is an unusual opportunity.
“It’s rare when a play can balance jaw-dropping humor with a delicate metaphor on the nature of love,” Cohen says.
“I consider this the best work to date from one of America’s most important playwrights, and I’m thrilled to help bring it to our area’s audiences for the first time.” An admirer of Ruhl, Cohen says this is a serious play “dressed up like a Victorian farce.”
Cohen sits on the Carnegie’s programming committee, and In the Next Room was at the top of his list for presentation this season. When Carnegie producer Joshua Steele conferred with CCM drama professor Richard Hess about a director for the collaborative production using student actors, they quickly agreed that Cohen, who makes his living as a practicing attorney, was the man for the job.
“This is essentially a CCM Studio production transplanted to the Carnegie,” Cohen says of the collaboration. Most of the tech staff are from CCM, as well as stage managers. Scenic designer Jennifer Rhodus and lighting designer Gustavo Valdez are CCM seniors, and their designs are their capstone projects, supervised by veteran CCM faculty.
Cohen is pleased to have a very experienced cast, too. Most characters are in their early thirties, and in Victorian costumes, the student actors look fine. In fact, Cohen made a decision not to use age makeup.
The CCM student actors have responded to Ruhl’s big ideas, Cohen says. In the Next Room, he explains, “asks the big question: Is love more than the sum of a person’s heart? What makes you love someone?” He recalls lyrics from a Gershwin song, “The way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea” and observes, “If someone asks why you love so and so and you start to make a list, you fail. It doesn’t really tell you why. At the end of this play, you find out that intimacy and love are seen through the eyes of the beholder, after what science and society tell us what it should be.”
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