The Body Electric

While titling plays twice seems either pretentious or indecisive, both halves of Sarah Ruhl's latest, In the Next Room, or the vibrator play — splendidly, provocatively produced by the Wilma Theater — are indispensable.

"In the Next Room" really expresses the play's heart: Victorian-era Catherine (Mairin Lee) longs to know what her husband, Dr. Givings (Jeremiah Wiggins), does for his patients in his parlor-adjacent "operating theater," and he is equally ignorant of what occurs outside his scientific sanctum. To accentuate their isolation, director Blanka Zizka and designer Alexis Distler reconfigure the Wilma with audience on opposite sides of the stage, eliminating all walls. These rooms, two achingly separate worlds, become transparent.

Ruhl's second title, " the vibrator play," provides a big jolt before the show even starts. Dr. Givings employs the 1880s marvel of electricity to stimulate a woman's "paroxysm" to relieve "congestion in the womb" causing "hysteria" — but we all know, wink-wink, that he's actually giving clinical orgasms to women who've never experienced such a thing, or even know that such sensations exist. Herein lies the simple brilliance of audience members seeing each other: We witness what goes on in the next room, and we get to watch others react. (Think we're not prudes today? You'll find out!) The spirited moaning from unhappy housewife Sabrina (Kate Czajkowski) and dejected artist Leo (Luigi Sottile — yes, Dr. Givings electronically stimulates men, too), coolly aided by another woman trapped by circumstances (Krista Apple, as Dr. Givings' unmarried assistant), prompt much giggling.

In the Next Room provides much more than titillation, however, and comparisons to Chekhov are apt. Ruhl's women are starved for attention and stimulation, not only sexual but emotional and intellectual. Catherine bursts with life, curiosity and passion but, thoroughly stifled by her husband's condescension, withers. Even the play's most worldly wise character, wet-nurse Elizabeth (Opal Alladin), is a prisoner — of gender, class and race. Sabrina's husband, Daldry (John C. Vennema), cocksure and ignorant, stubbornly clutches the status quo — he could host a Tea Party today. They're all flawed, pathetic characters, perpetrators and victims of a society that believes that anything approaching happiness must somehow be wrong.

Nothing's wrong, however, with Zizka's production. Oana Botez-Ban's handsome period costumes are appropriately constricting, and Thom Weaver subtly illuminates a challenging set for a script bursting with references to light and shadow. Christopher Colucci's music is, simply, masterful: haunting melodies, snatches of songs evoking loneliness and longing.

Ruhl's characters, like Chekhov's, yearn for something better. To her credit, she doesn't just illustrate antiquated notions. Despite loneliness balanced between the lascivious and the ludicrous, Ruhl summons hope. Through April 3, $36-$65, Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., 215-546-7824, wilmatheater.org.