A Celebration of All Things Cultural, Artistic, and Entertaining in Madison
Nov 11, 2010
About halfway through In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, a young man comes to his doctor’s home practice for an appointment. He waits with the doctor’s wife in the living room, sipping tea and discussing the weather in a futile attempt to ignore the moaning and buzzing coming from “the next room.”
Both have experienced the doctor’s “therapy” and know what’s going on in that room. And they, like the other characters in this play presented by Forward Theater Company, have varying degrees of understanding about what the treatment really is. It’s the Victorian era and electrical devices are new, their applications often unclear.
The patient and the doctor’s wife smile awkwardly at each other, much like audience members who exchange glances and laughs, unaccustomed to overhearing so much sexual stimulation.
To be sure, sex—the vibrator, arousals, attractions, touching—is front and center in this Sarah Ruhl work (which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for drama and a Tony Award for best play in 2010). And it’s important. But take it away and the play would still stand. At its core, In the Next Room is a story about a woman desperate to feel alive and connected to her husband and new baby and a man preoccupied with his career and obsessed with technology. It's about people seeking human connection and being handed technology as a stand-in for it.
Jessica Bess Lanius is excellently cast as the doctor’s wife, Catherine Givings. Likeable and energetic, she draws in the audience as she learns she can’t sufficiently nurse her newborn, reaches out to her emotionally removed husband, grows increasingly isolated in her home and seeks affection outside her marriage.
Mark Ulrich gives the character of Dr. Givings unexpected dimensionality. The doctor is certainly clinical: To him, a vibrator is used to relieve symptoms of hysteria in his patients. When his wife is distraught over not being able to nurse their baby, he straightforwardly suggests she stop worrying and hire a wet nurse (played movingly by Marti Gobel). Yet, somehow, we don’t want to give up on the doctor. He’s not trying to be cold. He loves his wife but simply isn’t equipped with the ability to be free with his sexuality.
The play offers a nice juxtaposition between technology and sex, between the cleanly clinical and the messily human. Electricity, light bulbs and machines share the stage with breastfeeding, the body and a range of emotions.
And that the action is set in the late 1800s—as characters ponder “electric cities” of the future—offers the audience enough space to contemplate technological advance in the present day. Questions about the good and bad sides of technology apply to both time periods. But I know the play made me want to spend a little less time with my laptop or iPhone and more plugged in to the people around me.
In the Next Room, or the vibrator play runs through November 21 at Overture Center. For more information, visit forwardtheater.com.
Photo by Zane Williams and courtesy of Forward Theater Company.