Good Vibrations In the Next Room

The Wilma Theater welcomes spring with a thoughtful production of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play—an unusual love story about emotional longing, sexual need and instant gratification.

Designer Alexis Distler transformed the Wilma to incorporate “salon style seating.” In the more intimate arrangement, the audience faces the stage on two sides, bringing theatergoers considerably closer to the stage. The scenic design consists of two large rooms sitting side by side. Together, the rooms make up the interior of the well-appointed home belonging to Dr. Givings (Jeremiah Wiggins) and his wife, Catherine (Mairin Lee). It’s the 1880s, and in the town where the Givings live, everyone is talking about the wonders of electricity and the brilliant young inventor Thomas Edison.

One of the rooms in the Givings household is the “operating theater,” where Dr. Givings treats patients for “hysteria.” According to the good doctor, the condition is caused by “a buildup of fluid in the womb.” He is currently treating a fragile woman named Sabrina (Kate Czajkowski), who is brought to the Givings’ home by her exasperated husband (John C. Vennema). Givings’ treatment involves his new invention—an electric vibrator—which he applies to Sabrina’s private area in the hope that it will release the devilish fluid. The treatment is a success, but Sabrina (who has never before achieved an orgasm) is shocked by the pleasurable sensations that engulf her body.

Exactly what her husband does in the operating theater is initially a mystery to Catherine. The first-time mom is more concerned about her baby girl, who is rejecting her mother’s milk. The situation requires the Givings to hire a wet nurse named Elizabeth (Opal Alladin). Elizabeth is in mourning (her infant son died tragically), but she agrees to nurse the Givings’ baby.

In Act II, Ruhl spices things up with the arrival of Leo (Luigi Sottile). A lovesick painter, Leo is likewise in need of Dr. Givings’ innovative treatment. “Hysteria is rare in men,” Givings informs his wife, “but then, he’s an artist.” Leo’s case allows the doctor to utilize his newest invention, the “Chattanooga Vibrator.” Exactly how this device works is best left to the imagination, but suffice to say Leo is one very satisfied customer.

An imaginative and forceful director, Blanka Zizka takes a surprisingly subtle approach to In the Next Room, which serves the play nicely—especially in its quieter scenes. It’s in these moments that In the Next Room is reminiscent of the work of Anton Chekhov, who portrays women trapped in lives of dull domesticity praying for a spark to ignite their passion and relieve their growing malaise.

Although Zizka puts the focus on Ruhl’s spare, poetic writing, the production is a handsome one. Oana Botez-Ban’s costumes are not only gorgeous, but successfully communicate the absurdly complicated dress of 19th-century women, which buries their bodies beneath mountains of fabric and countless hooks, laces and buttons. Distler’s realistic set is no less impressive. Dominated by lights and lamps of all varieties (I counted no fewer than seven table lamps and an equal number of overhead lights), the production’s lighting designer Thom Weaver (who is having a banner season) bathes the sitting room and nursery (the more feminine areas of the home) in warm, amber tones while the operating theater and office are cast in a slightly harsher, more masculine glare.

In the Next Room isn’t a great play. Much of the silly humor derives from the prudish characters’ awkward attempts to avoid any mention of sex. However, while Ruhl’s writing can at times be overly cute, she is also capable of creating powerful moments of raw emotion. In the play’s most affecting scene, Elizabeth talks about nursing the Givings’ daughter with milk intended for her own deceased son. It’s a deeply moving scene, and in her heartfelt performance Alladin shows us a woman whose body serves as a constant reminder of the child she lost.

In a world where sex is a chore performed in darkness and pain, Dr. Givings’ gadget can provide temporary pleasure with the flick of a switch. But to satisfy the needs of the body, the mind and the soul requires a human touch.