Last Thursday I returned to the Milwaukee Repertory theater for a record twice in three days, this time to see In the Next Room, or, The Vibrator Play. The play, written by Sarah Ruhl and directed by Laura Gordon, is an exploration of human sexuality, romance, and relationships, set in the constrictive and repressive Victorian 1880s in a spa town outside New York City. The primary couple is Dr. Givings (Grant Goodman) and his wife, Catherine Givings (Cora Vander Broek). Dr. Givings is a physician who has invented the electrical vibrator as a means of treating hysteria in women, which was actually a common practice at the time. I won’t spend time paraphrasing Wikipedia here, but I recommend you take a moment and read the brief history of the vibrator. While the characters and events in Ruhl’s story are fictional, they are based on very real and fairly shocking historical facts.
The set is divided into two connected rooms: Dr. Givings in-home operating theater where he repeatedly brings multiple women — and one man — to orgasm (or, as it was called, paroxysm), and the living room, where Mrs. Givings typically sits waiting, interacting with Dr. Givings’ various patients. The Givings’ relationship has long since turned cold and sterile, and Mrs. Givings longs to learn what goes on behind the closed doors of the operating theater where she listens at the door and hears the strange moaning sounds.
In many ways, this follows the patterns of any of several other Victorian tales of repression, in which straight-laced characters shed their inhibitions and release their true thoughts and desires. The play derives its power from the many layers of relationships that weave and tangle throughout each character’s journey of self-discovery. Sabrina Daldry (Cassandra Bissell), a supposed hysteria sufferer, is revealed to in fact be harboring homosexual desires, which are directed towards Annie (Jenny McKnight), Dr. Givings’ assistant. Sabrina’s husband, Mr. Daldry (Jonathna Smoots), weary of his wife’s disinterest, falls for Mrs. Givings. Mrs. Givings in turn, wearying of her own husband’s coldness and distance, falls in love with Leo Irving (Matthew Brumlow), a British painter and romantic. The voice of wisdom comes from Elizabeth (Tyla Abercrumbie), an African American wet-nurse hired by the Givings’, who seems both sexually liberated and in control of her own decisions. The web may seem convoluted or contrived, but each relationship is portrayed delicately and genuinely. Not only is the audience truly invested in each relationship, but they did not always end the way that I had expected. In addition to the close examination of the many sexual relationships, Ruhl also addresses nonsexual relationships, such as the friendship between Mrs. Givings and Mrs. Daldry, and the fraught interactions between a mother and wet-nurse.
While this would have been a successful and entertaining play regardless, what made it truly engaging and thought-provoking for me was its timeliness. The past several months of news have been dominated by stories of sexual repression, slut-shaming, and men dominating female sexuality. It could just be me, but the recent national debate around sexuality has had a distinctly Victorian vibe to it. These issues were on the forefront of my mind as I viewed In the Next Room. We tend to watch these sorts of stories with a smug chortle, reflecting on how foolish we were back in the day, yet I was forced to pause and reflect, how far have we really come?
The distinctly Victorian tone of the characters and the dialogue in In the Next Room give it a characteristically light pace and feel, but the content has real meat. The relationships are genuine, but more importantly, the issues addressed are relevant and essential. The wonderful set designed by Philip Witcomb and the universally successful acting contribute to the success of this stimulating (yep) production. If you are intrigued by the title and hoping for something racy and X-rated, you won’t find it here, but if you’re looking for an engaging character piece that will spark a conversation about the role of sexuality in modern society, I highly recommend you go check out In the Next Room, or, The Vibrator Play.
For tickets to see Othello at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, visit their website or call their Box Office at 414.224.9490.
Photos from MilwaukeeRep.com