We Love Arts: In the Next Room or the vibrator play

Eric Hissom and Katie deBuys in "In the Next Room or the vibrator play." Photo credit: Stan Barouh.

Ah, the Victorians! Always keeping the naughty bits tightly corseted. Such control freaks. At least, that’s our view of them now. It might come as a shock to learn about such inventions as the “electric massager,” on the scene in the 1870′s to relieve the frayed nerves of delicate housewives suffering from mysterious bouts of anxiety. Even more of a shock to learn before the dawn of the electrical age, physicians alleviated such symptoms of their patients the um, old-fashioned way, through manual manipulation. Yet somehow the resulting “paroxysms” and the accompanying relief were seen as strictly therapeutic and not erotic. Masters of keeping the physical and the sexual realms separate, those Victorians. One side Health, the other Damnation.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company‘s 2010-2011 season is titled “A Striptease for Your Subconscious” – and if the first play out of the gate is any indication, this is going to be one wild ride. In the Next Room, or the vibrator play explores this acutely private dance between the physical and the sexual, between control and release. Yes, it’s a play about a male scientist/physician using a primitive vibrator on his female patients (and one male) to bring them to orgasm in order to restore the bloom in their cheeks, and yes there are several scenes depicting this, but there’s a lot more going on. Playwright Sarah Ruhl dances on the edge of fairy tale, weaving the mythology of feminine awakening with just enough sweetness to win over any prudish audience member. The final moment of reveal and revelation might still shock some, but its daringness is rather beautiful.

In the Next Room or the vibrator play presents us with a seemingly ill-matched couple – the practical man of science Dr. Givings (a briskly authoritative Eric Hissom) and his wife, the charmingly impulsive Catherine (a radiant Katie deBuys). Sense and sensibility, these two. The doctor plies his trade in the next room, protecting his wife from his work and denying her the deeper affection she craves. The love they share is blocked, just as the unseen walls separate the doctor’s operating room from the drawing room, as the society separates the physical from the erotic. Into their circle weave other blocked lives, some comical, others heart-wrenching.

Among the heart-wrenching ones is the doctor’s nurse Annie, a spinster midwife whose capable presence masks a depth of feeling unsuspected by her employers – beautifully etched as always by Sarah Marshall. Her effect on the doctor’s main patient, the quiveringly damaged Sabrina Daldry, is unexpected but truthful. The character of Mrs. Daldry could easily devolve into cliche – a damaged Victorian rose opening up to life through erotic stimulus sounds pretty D.H. Lawrence to me – but Kimberly Gilbert capably sidesteps cliche and makes vivid both the comedy and the pain in the awakening process. Together the two are a reminder that no matter how much knowledge we acquire, we can’t always get our heart’s desire.

Rounding out the women is Catherine’s wet-nurse, the quietly contained Elizabeth. The moment that seemed the most shocking to the audience on the night I attended was not the initial vibrator scene but the one in which the doctor and his wife discuss the pros and cons of employment of a “darky” for their ailing baby’s wet-nurse. The Victorians didn’t just separate sex and pleasure, after all, they separated people into class and race too. Jessica Frances Dukes gives a subtly uncomfortable portrayal of Elizabeth, caught between all these classifications. After all, she is the one who illuminates the mystery of their orgasms at the hand of the electric massager to the doctor’s patient and his wife (their disgusted shock that it could have anything to do with sex with their husbands is truly hysterical), the one with whom comically soulful artist Leo Irving (a hilarious Cody Nickell) falls in love. She’s at the epicenter of the Victorians’ myriad prejudices on women, sex, and race – the eye of the hurricane.

The doctor’s wife’s increasing isolation and boredom results in impetuous behavior that in a different play, one exploring the Victorians’ darker side, might have had catastrophic results. But a reference to Madame Bovary is as dangerous as Ruhl will get. We shouldn’t forget that the “electric massager” wasn’t the only solution to female hysteria – Victorian physicians experimented with forced hysterectomies as well. There’s no mention of such unnecessary and brutal procedures. I longed for a little more risk for our impetuous heroine Catherine – but that isn’t the nature of this piece. Each character is here to find a sort of redemption, not damnation.

In the end, the doctor and his wife manage to escape the walls between them, the house imprisoning them, and their very clothes. In nature at last, under the falling snow, they become their essential selves. It’s a beautiful ending, sweet and tender, evoking the hopefulness of love with the joy of sex. A reunion of the two parts that the Victorians yearned for, even as they fought to keep them apart.

“In the Next Room, or the vibrator play” runs through September 19 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street NW. Closest Metro stop: Archives/Navy Memorial (Green/Yellow Line). For tickets and more information, call (202) 393-3939.

As one of the founding editors of We Love DC, Jenn’s passions are theater and cocktails. After two decades in the city, she’s loved every quirky, mundane, elegant, rude minute of her DC life. A proud advocate for DC’s talented drinks scene, she’s judged the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s ARTINI contest, the DC Rickey Month contest, the Jefferson Hotel’s Quill Cocktail competition, and is a founding member of LUPEC DC. A graduate of Catholic University’s drama program, she toured the country as a member of National Players, and has been both an actor and a costume designer before jumping the aisle to theater criticism. Writing for We Love DC restored her happiness after a life-threatening illness, and she’s grateful to you, dear readers. Send your suggestions to jenn (at) welovedc (dot) com and follow her on Twitter.

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