Maria Dizzia and Hannah Cabell in
In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)
(© Kevin Berne)
Maria Dizzia and Hannah Cabell in
In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)
(© Kevin Berne)
Any play with the word vibrator in the title and Victorian ladies dropping their knickers and leaping onto the orgasm table -- namely Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) now making its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theater -- is certain to stimulate audiences. But despite Les Waters' briskly humorous staging and a script full of puerile if funny jokes, Ruhl's examination of women's sexuality in Victorian society is not wholly satisfying.

The play, which hinges on the curious fact that shortly after the invention of electricity, the vibrator was invented, is a faux-drawing room comedy in which characters listen at the door of, conveniently forget their gloves in, and pick the lock of the so-called Next Room. That is where Dr. Givings (an amusing if shopworn display of stuffiness by Paul Niebanck) performs clinical treatments for women suffering from hysteria, including one Sabrina Daldry (Maria Dizzia), whose husband (John Leonard Thompson) has tired of her moodiness.

The prevailing thought at the time was excess fluid in the womb needed to be released in order to cure the patient of listlessness or over-excitement (and anything in between) and a vulvular massage was just the ticket. Therefore, an orgasm was nothing more than the result of medically-controlled, doctor-assisted therapy, and there was no connection whatsoever between having one and sexual pleasure.

As it happens, Giving's vivacious, chatty, and child-like wife Catherine (Hannah Cabell) is having a problem with her own fluids after the birth of her child. As her husband keeps pointing out, her milk isn't "adequate," so they hire a wet nurse, Elizabeth (Melle Powers), whose own baby has recently died. Both she and Catherine are unprepared for the feelings that arise from her feelings to her new charge.

Also thrown into the mix are Annie (Stacey Ross), Dr. Givings' "spinster" nurse, a character whose presence offers Ruhl another opportunity to explore yet one more angle of female sexuality, and Leo Irving (Joaquín Torres), a lofty artisté who sees beauty in a nursing mother and soullessness in the dawn of electricity.

For all the work's humor, Ruhl hammers home her themes. First, women's bodies are inadequate and in need of intervention, and women are being silly to think otherwise. And that given some of the alternatives, it's no surprise that women are drawn to the advantages of electricity like moths to a flame.