Theatre
Saturday, 01 October 2011 22:04

Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room”, or “The Vibrator Play”, is Funny, Important, and Liberating Featured

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I remember reading about the turn of the century medical trend that attempted to cure “hysteria” in women (and men) by stimulating them to orgasm or “paroxysm” by a doctor using manual or electrical (vibrator) stimulation and thinking that this would make a fascinating subject for film or stage. 


The reason I found this subject matter so important to explore and rediscover is because at the turn of the century the only other treatment options for mental illness, depression, and actual hysteria in women involved, toxic drugs like laudanum, the barbaric practice of partial lobotomy, ice baths, shock therapy and routine involuntary committal to an insane asylum.
Playwright, Sarah Ruhl, has brought out all of the many facets of this important subject and time period in a funny, touching, and liberating way right down to the restrictive nature of the clothes the women had to wear including bustles, steel corsets, and heavy high necked dresses tightly secured with a multitude of tiny buttons.


next-room2In the play, the appropriately named, Dr. Givings, a well to do physician in a spa town in New York, is pioneering the intimate new therapy in his home “operating theater”, which along with his parlor room has just had the magical glow of electricity installed for the first time.


Dr. Givings' young wife, Catherine, has recently given birth and is unable to nurse her own child. As she sees patient after patient leave smiling and glowing, she feels more and more lonely and neglected and becomes curious about the treatment. While her husband is at a convention watching the experimental electrocution of dogs, she secretly tries the therapy on herself with the help of a female patient, Sabrina Daldry.


Sarah Ruhl makes many wonderful feminist points in this play without ever losing the light, airy sense of humor, playfulness and poetic wonder that she is so good at infusing into her plays. 
It is interesting that even though Dr. Givings is a forward thinking pioneer, at first he refuses to give the therapy to the one person in his life who most obviously needs it, his own wife. He refuses her the treatment on the basis that it might make her “ more excitable” as he fears that this will empower her sexual nature too much. Dr Givings fears that he personally will be unable to satisfy her normal sexual urges and the resulting emotional desires once they are restored.  The first time he relents and begins applying the vibrator treatment to his wife, Catherine, she begs and cries out for him to kiss her as she builds towards “paroxysm” but he vehemently refuses, as he is unwilling to combine natural sexuality with sympathetic emotionality. Her angry response is a simple, “YOU are inadequate.”


Ruhl also brings up many fascinating points about the restorative effect of the orgasm on men and women alike in terms of releasing creativity in their lives through music and art.  The character of Leo Irving, a painter from Paris, who is experiencing depression and inability to create new art, i.e. “painters block” finds his inspiration and enthusiasm for life completely restored after just one treatment.  


Ruhl also plays up to great effect the natural improvement in one's general sense of humor and well being that having sufficient orgasmic release causes in the human nervous system. Ruhl's characters show the orgasm triggers the release of psychological repression and frustration through tears and the loud cries of the breath.  I like how Ruhl shows that this “induced release” causes increased emotional flexibility and stability in female and male conscious awareness equally.


There is also an interesting sub plot that develops between one of the patients and the doctors nurse, Annie, in the play, regarding the homo erotic feelings that may come to surface between individuals when orgasm is achieved without the additional onus or burden at the time of actual sexual contact, especially during such a repressed Victorian time period. 
There is also a very funny and poignant scene where the doctor's wife and patient are describing the sensations of an orgasm to their black nursemaid, they mention the feelings of hot coals illuminating their feet, colored light flashing behind their eyelids etc, and when the maid suggests that they are possibly describing what occurs during “relations with their husbands” they both scream in laughter and disbelief that they have never experienced anything like the miraculous sensations they experienced  in the medical treatment. One tells that she has experienced nothing but physical pain and emotional distance during relations with her husband.


In the end, the women help each other and their husbands in some degree, to rediscover the power of friendship, and the giddy joyful freedom that comes when one is enabled to rule ones own sexual life and infuse it with the romance and healthy emotions of warmth and equality.


Ruhl also does not show the cure to be a “cure all”, that is, the vibrator' assisted orgasm as the answer to all marital misunderstanding.  Instead she shows how the satisfaction of the most basic and natural urge particularly in women is a first stepping point, that leads the women and their husbands right back into touch with the blocked love and emotional needs that they are unable to satisfy in each other without first releasing their own “excess” sexual energy or “fluids”.


I must say, I have never seen so many orgasms acted out on stage with such realism and humor. 


I enjoyed the entire cast in this piece, including the very funny, Kate Fry as Catherine Givings, Patricia Kane as Nurse Annie, the poignant, Tamberla Perry as Nursemaid Elizabeth and Lawrence Grimm as the hapless husband of Sabrina Daldrey.  


Polly Noonan as the patient, Sabrina Daldry, was very funny and really embodied the process of the path from depression and over sensitivity to healthy affection for life and sex. Joel Gross as Leo Irving, the inspiration blocked artist, resembles a young Robert Downey Jr. in his energy and presentation.  Gross has a great natural stage presence and stole many of the scenes he was in. 


I highly recommend seeing Tony nominated “In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play” as it is a funny and surprisingly important piece on a par with “The Vagina Monologues”. It includes some personally empowering messages for men and women alike in a humorous, light hearted and poetic way.


“In the Next Room” is playing at Victory Gardens Theatre through October 9th. For more information visit www.victorygardens.org.

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