Review: 2nd Story's hilarious Vibrator Play

Mastering hysteria
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  May 12, 2011

Theater_2nd-Story-(Warren)_
PLUGGED IN Sherba and Mancini in In the Next Room.

Women certainly had plenty to be hysterical about toward the end of the 19th century, a time when Thomas Edison's technological advances were shining on the culture. That is the subject of Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play), which is getting a terrific production at 2nd Story Theatre (through May 29).

"Female hysteria" was a term used by physicians as a catch-all to dismiss the stressful social and sexual frustration women had to endure in the Victorian era. Decent women weren't expected to enjoy sex — which was convenient for Victorian men, who didn't have the knack for doing it right anyway. Not acknowledging enjoyment in female sexuality also allowed for a bizarre medical practice: doctors bringing women to orgasm (their polite term is "a paroxysm") in order to relieve "congestion in the womb" and calm them down. (No statistics are available about whether there was a concurrent rise in female cigarette smoking after these sessions.)

Ruhl has assembled the perfect set of characters to portray this travesty, and Vanessa Gilbert has cast and directed a definitive ensemble to bring it all to hilarious life.

Dr. Givings (Aaron Morris) is a scientific-minded practitioner who appreciates the introduction to his office of an electric vibrator to treat his female hysteria patients. It's quite a timesaver from the tedious practice of doing the work by hand. The first lines in the play are from Mrs. Givings (Gabby Sherba), his young wife, who coos in fascination to her swaddled newborn as she plays with their new electric lamp: "Straight from man's imagination into our living room. On, off, on, off . . . ." She is soon to be even more deeply impressed by such innovation.

We meet a typical patient of the doctor's, the nervous Mrs. Daldry (Rae Mancini), whose husband (Mark Gentsch) complains that she is always weeping at odd moments during the day. She can't even play the piano any more, she says, because her fingers will not work. Not in the living room, her husband adds, "or in any other room, if you take my meaning, Dr. Givings."

It's the doctor's "operating theater" that gets the most action. Eventually Mrs. Givings and Mrs. Daldry work together with the buzzing device when he's not around, since this is all supposed to be therapeutic rather than prurient. Even the nurse assistant, Annie (Erin Olson), gets into the act. She has studied Greek, both the language and the philosophies, exemplifying the wasted potential of women of this time. In a later scene that could be matter-of-fact, Olson's giddy joy at the culmination of all this self-discovery will break your heart.

A subplot, expanding on the situations of Victorian women, involves Elizabeth (Angella Lynsey Ford), an African-American wet nurse who is employed because Mrs. Givings, to her dismay, cannot produce enough milk. Besides giving passing indication of having a healthier sex life and belonging to a less neurotic subculture, Elizabeth helps give dimension to perhaps the most interesting character here, Leo (Wayne Kneeland). Leo provides a good sight gag when he is treated by the doctor, who explains, "Hysteria is rare in a man. But then, he is an artist." More importantly, the artist is inspired by the notion of a post-Civil War Madonna and wants to paint Elizabeth nursing.

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