In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

April 24, 2012

Scientists are not entirely sure of the evolutionary purpose of the female orgasm. It may be a physical fluke, created because all fetuses start with the same building blocks, regardless of gender, and therefore men and women end up with some of the same bodily abilities. Or, perhaps, female orgasms serve an evolutionary function: some scholars argue that female orgasms help keep sperm inside the woman and even propel it upwards towards the ovaries. Sexy.

The characters in Brandeis Players’ In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play, which ran Thursday through Sunday in the Carl J. Shapiro Theater, don’t quite think in terms of evolutionary purpose, however. The play takes place shortly after the Civil War in the home of a doctor who specializes in curing “hysteria”—a uniquely female catch-all condition used to explain symptoms as diverse as fainting spells, weakness, sensitivity to light and insomnia. The cure? Pelvic massage. Due to the recent innovation of electrical wiring in private homes, doctors can now masturbate their female patients into good health.

Of course, the character Dr. Givings (Aaron Fischer ’15) sees nothing sexual in this therapy. He chats quite amiably with his patients as he manipulates “the instrument” under a sheet, asking them to describe their experience and practically patting them on the head afterwards, rewarding them for a job well done. At first, Dr. Givings’ wife, Catherine (Leila Stricker ’13) is blissfully unaware of the mechanics of her husband’s practice, noting only how his patients seem to rapidly improve after several daily sessions.

Catherine’s growing sense of detachment from her husband is the undercurrent running throughout In the Next Room. She was once proud to refer to Dr. Givings as an aloof “scientist,” grinning as she pronounced the word to Sabrina—a patient—and her husband Mr. Daldry (Nicole Carlson ’14 and Ben Gold ’13, respectively). As the play progresses, however, the audience comes to know Catherine’s feelings of loneliness and uselessness, which are spurred by her inability to nurse her newborn baby.

Stricker was a wonder as Catherine. She deftly juggled her character’s swift changes in mood, skillfully morphing from the flighty chatterbox of the first act to an introspective, demanding woman in the second. For a less-skilled actress, the role could have been trite or simply comedic. Stricker, however, demonstrated a young woman’s confusion and dawning realization that life is not all she hoped it’d be with touching emotion.

As Sabrina, Catherine’s accomplice in uncovering the mysteries of hysterical paroxysm—a.k.a. orgasm—Carlson was another delight. Upon her first entrance into the Givings’ home, Sabrina is covered in layers of dramatic dress, thick velvet draping her tiny frame and a large hat and veil perched upon her head like the top of an acorn. Executive costume designer Shana Burstyn ’12 and costume designer Grace Fosler ’14 did a magnificent job with the period costumes, particularly as dressing and undressing are such important tropes in the play.

As In the Next Room progresses, Sabrina’s hysteria dissipates along with her cloak and concealing veil, revealing an easy giggle and willingness to participate in Catherine’s schemes.

Using Sabrina’s hatpin, the women break into Dr. Giving’s operating theater, a chamber off the Givings’ living room. Catherine coaxes her friend into operating the vibrator on her. Thus, a female bond is born by way of orgasm.

The dissonance between what modern audiences know to be naughty and the utter seriousness with which the characters conduct their “therapy” gives In the Next Room its comedic edge. However, this is a joke that, at times, grows stale. Watching Dr. Givings or his efficient nurse Annie (Chastity DeLorme ’14) bring unsuspecting women to orgasm is funny the first time. Watching it again and again becomes overkill, particularly as the play runs a lengthy two and a half hours.

I wondered how the men in the audience viewed these scenes (and the play in general). Men invariably have a different attitude toward orgasm, a pleasure most can achieve even before puberty without the use of forbidden toys or a Barry White CD.

In the Next Room, by playwright Sarah Ruhl, could only have been written by a woman. And a deft, affecting performance such as the one I saw on Saturday night could only have been directed by a woman—in this case, Tess Suchoff ’13. Though In the Next Room takes place in the 1880s, when the vibrator was first invented, women are often still discouraged from taking control over their own bodies and pleasure today.

The play comes to a close in a tender, dramatic scene between Catherine and Dr. Givings. Inspired by her wet nurse Elizabeth (Sneha Walia ’15) and a brief infatuation with a rare male patient (Julian Seltzer ’15), Catherine becomes determined to reconnect, sexually and emotionally, with her husband. Echoing an earlier point in their relationship in which Catherine recalls writing her name in the snow as a gift to her husband, the pair wander out to their garden on a snowy winter night. Catherine gently commands Dr. Givings to undress, discovering her husband visually for the first time. They make love in the snow, and Catherine experiences her first orgasm from her husband.

The scene was beautifully arranged. Executive lighting designer Carolyn Daitch ’14 and lighting designers Jessica Podhorcer ’15 and Ian Carroll ’15 bathed the stage in small flickering lights. Catherine and Dr. Givings stand nearly bare before lying on the ground. I’ve seen nudity and simulated sex in theater before. But, perhaps because the play was not a glossy professional theater production, or because Ruhl’s dialogue turned so raw and needing, I was more emotionally stirred by this scene than I have been by similar spectacles. In the Next Room’s conclusion shined a light on the play’s true theme beyond its sexual highjinks: forming true connections.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s