Alex Trow plays Sabrine Daldry in In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play.
Elinor Fuchs’ short essay “Visit to a Small Planet: Some Questions to Ask a Play” (published online by MIT for the edification of theatrical types everywhere) is a guide to thinking about works for the theater. A brief and clumsy summary of this seminal work: the essay asks readers of plays to consider the “small planet” a play creates – the physical and emotional landscape of the planet, the way time moves on the planet, the power dynamics between people on the planet, etc. – it is an understatement to say it is well worth a read if you have the time and the inclination. I’ve had the great pleasure of living on two small planets for the last several weeks. One is a Fuchsian theatrical planet created by the team at Gulfshore Playhouse for Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play. The second, rather more meta-theatrically, is the small planet I’ll call Naples, Florida in Winter.
First, the planet of The Vibrator Play: when the audience touches down at the Norris Center, they enter a version of 1880’s upstate New York, where the bustled dresses are ornate and the Victorian code of morals is strict. In a way, time on this planet is measured by sound: the ringing of the doorbell (when things are moving quickly) or the buzzing of the vibrator (when, for some audience members, time moves very slowly indeed). From where I stand as Mrs. Daldry, the planet is inhabited by people with extraordinary levels of longing – every character is driven by his or her need to connect, and, in this very particular world, sometimes that connection is impossible, sometimes it is possible but feels very far away indeed, and sometimes it could never be more than a fanciful imagining, one that melts quicker than snow in the sun. It is a planet where a visitor can experience comfort with discomfort, humor with tragedy, pain with pleasure, and each audience member seems to have a different trip. The visitor to this small planet may leave it feeling any number of things, from delight to consternation to passion to indifference to a strange mix of all of the above.
Visiting the small planet of Naples, Florida in Winter is mostly pure delight, mixed with a bit of sunburn. Time moves differently on this planet; mornings on the beach fly by, and so do rehearsals and performances with a joyous group of actors and crew members. Lines are learned a little more easily here, to the tunes of waves and seagulls. The avocados on this planet are generally very, very good. Those of us lucky enough to touch down here have been aware from the beginning that we will return to our regular planet – fast, noisy, neon, cold New York City – where we will pick up our lives with the usual mix of joy and sadness, while imagining a return to the little planet we just left, where the beach and the sun and so many nice people are.
In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play is a few shows from closing, and the small planet this cast and crew and design team created will disintegrate into nothing, never to be seen in its exact form again. Other companies in other places will doubtless build other Vibrator Play planets, but this specific planet – with its specific actors, its specific director, its specific location in a theatre eight blocks from the dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico – will never be seen again. The planet of Naples, Florida in Winter will likely orbit for many more moons, and I’ll dream of a return to it. In the meantime, as a temporary inhabitant of both the Vibrator Play and Naples, Florida in Winter, I can say with confidence these two planets aligned in a once-in-a-lifetime way, and I’m very grateful for my stay.