For a play that features multiple orgasms played practically in the laps of those seated in the front row, In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl is remarkably user-friendly. Set in Victorian America in the dignified home office of a medical doctor, the play explores the themes of love, female sexuality, loneliness, friendship, and the power of electricity with a wink and many double entendres.
The stage is divided into two rooms: upstage is the living room of Dr. Givings’ home, which also serves as a waiting room for his patients. Dr. Givings (Jeff Cummings) specializes in the treatment of women in the throes of "hysteria." Not to be mistaken for its current usage, hysteria was a genuine 19th century medical diagnosis that dated back to the ancient Greeks. The ailment was originally believed to be caused by a “wandering uterus.” This was meant literally — the organ was believed to roam the body willfully, causing mischief such as nervousness, sensitivity to light and cold, headaches and depression.
Since hysteria tended to manifest most often in unmarried young women, widows, and matrons unfulfilled in their marriages, the medical solution was the “pelvic massage.” As Dr. Givings genially explains to his hysterical patient, Mrs. Daldry (Deborah King), this hands-on treatment could take hours before the patient achieved the desired end, “hysterical paroxysm.” The good doctor doesn’t believe this phenomenon to be an orgasm. Nice women in his 1880s New England spa town don’t have orgasms. Instead, the paroxysm simply clears the womb of congestion, restoring health and vigor.
Beyond the living room, in the titular next room, Dr. Givings has a medical marvel of the electric age: a vibrator. This wonderful machine can accomplish in a mere three minutes what used to take hours, and it does so with minimal fatigue to the hands of the physician. Dr. Givings is a genial, scientific gentleman, keeping his manner strictly clinical and his eyes glued to his pocket watch as he brings nervous, unhappy Mrs. Daldry to climax not once, but twice during her initial treatment session. It’s no surprise, given the moans and cries coming from the next room, that Dr. Givings’ wife, Catherine (Jennifer Sue Johnson), is eager to discover just how the vibrator works.
Improbably, it’s all hilarious. The theatrical spectacle of Victorians modestly clad in full-body underwear being brought to howling ecstasy by the vibrator — “It looks like a farming tool!” Catherine marvels — is not so much pruriently shocking as shockingly funny. The play is powered by sexuality and electricity, both carefully controlled and employed only under the strictest supervision. As directed by ACT Artistic Director Kurt Beattie, In the Next Room is less about repression than restraint. The women, ranging in age and socio-economic status, are not forced to sublimate their sexuality. Instead, there is simply neither a time nor a place for it. Kisses are chaste, husbands turn away when their wives undress, and though an orgasm may happen — a “paroxysm,” rather — it is only under the care of a doctor, never during intercourse.
Catherine’s increasing desperation — one might label it hysteria — parallels the improvement in Dr. Givings’ patients. In spite of its obvious benefits, he refuses to administer the treatment to her. If she’s ailing, he simply doesn’t see it. “Experiment on me!” she begs. His response is a peck on the cheek. Catherine’s attraction to the vibrator, which emits an intense buzz and resembles an end table with attached brass hose nozzle, only increases as it becomes a symbol of forbidden pleasure.
In Matthew Smucker’s minimalist set, which deftly hints at Victorian clutter that is never made explicit, the next room is divided from the domestic realm neither by walls nor doors. The slight dip in the floor that separates them nonetheless feels like a vast gulf between two mutually exclusive worlds. Directly opposite the vibrator in the next room, the candle-covered piano, which is described as languishing without human touch, serves as an adroit metaphor for the lives of the characters, “hysteric” and “healthy” alike.
The major disappointment in this two-act ode to the magic of electricity is Ben Zamora’s lighting design, which is uninspired, even to the point of seeming lazy. Time after time, characters turn on a lamp topped by an old-timey bulb or blow out a candle, waxing rhapsodic about the change this has wrought. The stage, however, remains uniformly bright throughout. With two major undercurrents driving the action — sex and electricity — the actors are overburdened by a perpetually cheery brilliance when what they need is the occasional shadow or the unexpected flicker of a flame.
Though Beattie’s direction brings out the wit and humor of Ruhl’s 2010 Pulitzer- and Tony-nominated script, it does so at the expense of the profound sorrow and loneliness that underlies the hysteria. There is a lot of brisk walking in this play and an excess of chipper chatter, especially from the self-described “tactless” Catherine. The sole contrast is found in Elizabeth (Tracy Michelle Hughes), Mrs. Daldry’s bereaved black housekeeper, who is hired by Catherine to serve as wet nurse to her new baby. Though mourning the recent death of her own baby and profoundly angry at God, Elizabeth is graceful as she drifts through an existence that, for her, has lost all sense of grace. Hughes’ self-possession never waivers, even as she recounts her initial hatred of Catherine’s baby and her desire that her breast milk might make the infant swell and burst like a tick. Her performance restores the good name to “restrained.”
Indeed, in Beattie's attempt to keep the tone upbeat, the audience loses one of Ruhl's crucial points about the nature of male and female interaction during the late 19th century: the selling of the body. Electric lamps are likened to prostitutes (these “candles without smoke” are like sex without love to one romantic character). Catherine avoids becoming pregnant for a second time because she fears being consumed from within by a creature that knows only the emotion of hunger, or more specifically, desire. Elizabeth sells the use of her body first to Catherine as source of food for her baby, then to an artist as the model for a painting. By buying and selling physical release in the next room, Dr. Givings makes a commodity of satisfaction of the body without actually examining his patients — with the notable exception of Elizabeth — to see if there is an underlying medical or mental problem that accounts for their malaise.
If you go: In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, runs through Aug. 28 at ACT, located at 700 Union St. in Seattle. Tickets start at $37.50. For more information, visit www.acttheatre.org.