With a name like “the Vibrator Play” one can’t help but have some bubbling expectations as they take their seat at Cleveland Play House’s latest production. Is it a bawdy tale of lust and love? A stark look at humanity’s primal urges? An expose on 1950s horror movie gimmicks? And how important was that ‘mature audiences’ sign in the lobby?
When I first heard about Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, many of those thoughts were going through my head. Playing on the Cleveland Play House’s Second Stage now through May 13, the Pulitzer Prize finalist and 2010 Tony Award® Nominee for Best Play is the cornerstone of CPH’s New Ground Theatre Festival.
In the late 1800s which is when In the Next Room is set, strict moral codes ruled society. A side-effect of the time’s male-dominated repression was a rise in “hysteria” among women.
For these women who had “a tendency to cause trouble,” a common professional medical treatment would be prescribed: physicians and midwives would use manual manipulation to induce a “paroxysm” that could relieve whatever “womb imbalance” had caused the hysteria.
With the invention of electricity, doctors gained a new tool – the electromechanical vibrator. It could produce a paroxysm in mere minutes and required no particular skill to operate. The vibrator was a purely medical device to correct what was construed as female “frigidity” before 1920s pornographic films destroyed its wholesome image.
In In the Next Room, audiences meet a doctor who has become known for being exceptionally good at delivering this treatment. Husbands bring their “troublesome” wives to see Dr. Givings on a weekly and sometimes daily basis, while even a few more sensitive men seek out relief from him.
While these treatments take place behind a closed door, Dr. Givings’ wife Catherine is in the next room dealing with her own issues after the birth of their first child. Feeling disconnected from her scientifically-obsessed husband, she starts speaking and building relationships with the patients that pay her husband a visit.
However, In the Next Room is much more than a humorous tale about the early days of the vibrator. Moreso than almost any other play I’ve seen recently, Ruhl’s script is a complex masterpiece with countless layers of themes connected by its beautifully poetic dialogue.
Every character – whether it’s Doctor Givings, Catherine, his midwife, her wetnurse or the Doctor’s female and male patients – has their own dynamic journey that touches upon a different topic. On top of that, the individual relationships each character develops with one another build to new themes.
Because of Ruhl’s outstanding writing, the audience is gifted with so many ideas to explore: the search for emotional and physical health; the debate between scientific innovation/technology and humanity; the hardships of both infertility and motherhood; the desire to forge a meaningful connection with someone, as well as discussions on race, propriety, spirituality and art.
While it may be set in the Victorian era, In the Next Room is written for a contemporary audience with ideas that are universal, timeless. For instance, those audience members who are interested in the most recent debate about personhood and the rights of women will find this serendipitously-timed production an excellent catalyst for conversations.
With so many themes, it would be easy for audience members to get lost or the play’s action to drag. However, thanks to the skilled direction of Cleveland Play House’s Associate Artistic Director Laura Kepley, each layer pieces together seamlessly.
Under her leadership, every actor is exceptional in their roles and the beautiful Victorian costumes and house design are effective in not just eliciting the time but also establishing physical reminders of the barriers that restrict the characters.
When Scott and I saw the production earlier this week, we stuck around for a post-show discussion with the cast. They shared that during rehearsals, Kepley explained to them how each character went through a process of awakening, connection and release during the play. It’s the one constant that unites them all.
And thanks to the work of everyone involved, the audience is taken on a similar journey – being awakened by, connected to and freed by many of the play’s ideas – an effect that has lasted for me days after leaving the theatre.
In the Next Room is in the Cleveland Play House’s Second Stage space through Sunday, May 13. Tickets are available at the PlayhouseSquare ticket office by calling 216-241-6000 or online at www.clevelandplayhouse.com.
As mentioned earlier, In the Next Room is part of CPH’s New Ground Theatre Festival. For more information about the festival, check out a preview here.
Disclosure: I was invited to attend a performance of In the Next Room in exchange for sharing my opinions about the production. The thoughts expressed in this post are sincere and my own.