Elevate Difference

In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play (8/29/2010)

“Please turn off anything that beeps, buzzes, or vibrates.” And with that comic admonishment to the audience, Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer Sarah Ruhl’s play about the advent of vibrators began.

The setting is Dr. Givings home, where his living room is located next to, and within earshot of, the “surgical theater.” Here, Dr. Givings (played by Eric Hissom) treats hysteria, a “medical ailment” dating back to about 300 BC, when Hippocrates thought women’s madness stemmed from their womb. Meanwhile, back on stage, the good doctor’s wife (Katie deBuys) wonders why patients come in with symptoms of anxiety and leave, only anxious to come back again—and soon.

Above the noise of “oh-ooh-oooh,” Dr. Givings himself groans about the bygone days of manual stimulation: “It was like a child’s game–trying to rub the head and the stomache at the same time.” Why, the procedure could take up to an hour! With the electric massager, “paroxyms” can be had within three to five minutes time and, if they don’t, um, come, Dr. Givings hands the tedious task over to his competent assistant Annie (played by Sarah Marshall).

While patients such as Mrs. Daldry (Kimberly Gilbert) and a male patient named Leo Irving (Cody Nickell) make it clear their emotional needs are not being met–Mrs. Daldry cannot have children and Mr. Irving cannot find the passionate love that his creative soul desires—the doctor steadfastly believes their symptoms can be treated with the latest technology of the day, the electromechanical vibrator for her and the anal dialater for him.

So the new device makes patients happier—so happy that Mrs. Givings breaks into the room and tries it out herself for her own hysteria–feeling unfulfilled in her marriage and inadequate in nourishing her newborn—but, alas it’s not fixing the problems.

Aside from having unmet emotional needs, women’s sexuality is still not recognized and even feared, as the men highlight in their joke about a friend that thought women looked like marble statues you see in a museum—and then ran like a mad man from his wife when he saw she had beastly hair “down there.” Only the wet nurse Elizabeth (played by Jessica Frances Dukes) hired to feed Dr. and Mrs. Givings’ baby, understands the connection between the vibrator and sexual pleasure. Otherwise, the technological wonder is thought to produce a confusing mixture of pain and pleasure. So confusing it brings them back daily to figure out if they like it or not!

Behavior like this and many other comedic opportunities make director Aaron Posner’s In the Next Room a humorous, but not insensitively so, play about the history behind the medical use of vibrators. It subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly highlights the utter lack of knowledge and understanding of women’s physical bodies, sexual desires, and emotional needs. It beautifully portrays women’s roles, relationships, and subordination to men during Victorian times and reminds us that even today, we still grapple with some of these issues. However, the play about vibrators will make an historical imprint itself—made many years after we laughed about the link between masturbation and mental illness in men-and will stimulate discussion of female sexuality for years to come.

Written by: Joan Dawson, September 22nd 2010

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