In the Next Room or the vibrator play

Dr. Givings (John Middleton) and Catherine Givings (Christina Baldwin)

by MIRA REINBERG

That the vibrator gained wide and accepted usage to treat hysteria in women during what is considered one of the most demure of social ages – Victorian times, is a historical reality brimming with irony and asking to be dramatized in theatre. Playwright Sarah Ruhl put history into literary action in In the Next Room or the vibrator play, now on stage at Jungle Theater.

There is a substantial amount of historical accuracy in the play: medical practices, Thomas Edison’s technological innovations in electricity, women’s role in society. From her twenty-first-century perspective, Ruhl concedes that she portrayed physicians’ attitudes and relations between men and women as inherently well-meaning and not calculatingly exploitative.

Ruhl’s vision of the predicament of women in New York of the 1880s is circumspectly and affectionately executed in a meticulous production under the direction of Sarah Rasmussen. Rasmussen, together with set designer (and Jungle’s artistic director) Bain Boehlke, disposed of a set befitting an affluent family of the times, warmly lit and aesthetically calming, softened by soothing music but which nevertheless keeps emitting sounds and lights that signal distress and ambiguity.

The pragmatic and serious Dr. Givings, played studiously and intently by John Middleton, holds his clinic in the spa house he shares with his wife Catherine. Christina Baldwin portrays Catherine’s role as proud and anxious at once. And she has good reason to be apprehensive: in the next room, Dr. Givings is immersed in his professional practice which is nothing but one of giving women “massages” that would alleviate their anxiety, restlessness, and lack of appetite for life. Indeed he aims to help them regain their rosy cheeks.

But we can rely on progress to stop at nothing. As the play unfolds we see that even as scientific innovation has introduced the electromechanical vibrator to facilitate the cleansing of the uterine fluids that evidently were responsible for women’s melancholia, so have women become increasingly aware of the needs and limits of their bodies, and ready to express their insights to one another. Technology as man’s invention is essential to the theme of the play; so is the conception man has traditionally fashioned of woman as needing cure instead of affection and attention. But as the characters in this production demonstrate movingly, change happens when people, women here, force their way into the next room, the space where knowledge is practiced at the exclusion of the “benefactor” from this very knowledge.

Men may think that science and technology will transform society to the benefit of all. But for real revolution to happen we must be in the main space, the living room that extends not only over most of the stage but out into the “grounds” of the location, and onward to the rest of the world. It is by breaking into the secrecy of the “treatment room” next door that the women will unlock the actual workings of the new instrument and its connection to their wellbeing. The set in this production participates fully in demonstrating the necessary collaboration between technological innovation and psychical insights

In the quest for fuller understanding between the sexes, the characters seem to stray toward a state that seems imaginary and unreachable for ordinary men and women. But the picture of harmony, enclosed by the Jungle’s beams framing the stage, is a very true invitation to bring the next room into the real world.

 

In the Next Room or the vibrator play, by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Sarah Rasmussen. Set design by Bain Boehlke. At Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis, Minnesota. November 2—December 16, 2012. Tickets at Box Office Phone: (612) 822-7063 or Box Office Email: boxoffice@jungletheater.com

Advertisements

One thought on “In the Next Room or the vibrator play

  1. Pingback: 2013 Ivey Awards | Aisle Say Twin Cities

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