A Vibrator Play at ACT Theatre

In the Next Room, or A Vibrator Play
Author: Sarah Ruhl
Date attended: 8 August 2011
Venue: ACT Theatre
Director: Kurt Beattie
I have not read the play.

Why this play now?

The first thing I thought when ACT theatre announced they would be producing In the Next Room was “I want to research the history of vibrators.” I was ecstatic when I opened the program to discover a three page article written about the history of hysteria. The writer of this article captured the humor of the topic, while also giving equal weight to the highly patriarchal truth behind the treatment of hysteria and the increased distance women developed between their bodies and their pleasure.

I was further excited by the number of older audience members in attendance. I was sandwiched between two elderly ladies who giggled uncontrollably practically through the whole show. During intermission they stopped giggling and started talking, a little tentatively and mostly in the theoretical, about their bodies and masturbation.

For this reason I feel the show belongs to the relevant current mythology of theatre. They talked; they had questions; and it inspired conversation which is really all you can ask from a production*. I left them to discuss through most of intermission so I didn’t hear the bulk of their conversation, but by the time I was back they had moved on to simply discussing the giggle-worthy moments of the show, of which there are many. This is perhaps the only hesitancy I have about the show and perhaps it’s a bit judgmental, but there were too many cheap giggles throughout that they distracted from the actual poignant stories taking place (see final comments for more).

*Clarification added 8-21-2011 by request: Ideally, the conversation will lead to self and artistic examination, which will hopefully lead to action and further analysis. What is not ideal is simply discussing after/during the show and then forgetting what you saw ever happened. Art should continue to inspire and challenge how you view the world and yourself.

What’s happening in the work thematically?

  • Electricity as the cure for all our ills
  • Orgasm is scientific as opposed to pleasurable
  • Fear of trying to please women the “old-fashioned way,” and by extension fear of female anatomy

What moments encapsulate the story?

The wonderfully affecting love story unfolding between Annie and Mrs. Daldry mattered more to me than the story between the doctor and wife. The subtle development of their romance through to the bitter kiss moment on the piano bench was heart-wrenching to watch. This development alone makes the whole show worth seeing, and inspires me to work on the production in the future.

Related to the the Annie and Mrs. Daldry story is the small moment in which Mrs. Daldry cannot climax with the vibrator, but realizes that her enjoyment is actually stimulated by a specific person. This is the first acknowledgement we get that “the cure” is not just an orgasm to make women (or men, for that matter) feel whole; it is stimulation beyond the physical.

Were there moments of disunity, or areas in which the story-telling deviated from the apparent desired direction? (apparent in this case meaning the direction as it appeared to this member of the audience)

I had not seen a Sarah Ruhl play live before the other night at ACT Theatre, but having read a few of her plays, I feel as if I’m missing the boat in some fundamental way. I think her work is highly engaging and interesting. But in some ways it also seems to apologize for itself instead of seeing an idea through to the end. The show is about vibrators in Victorian New England which means there is an inherent amount of giggles that the audience must have. However, at some point they should drop away in favor of the story happening on stage. In a way, the giggles became the focus of the story instead of the doctor who can’t bring himself to touch his wife, and the woman who discovers she’s in love with another woman. Though both of these stories came across, the audience was too busy wondering if they were going to see another orgasm on stage. Rather than providing the proper amount of aesthetic distance to appreciate the higher purpose of the story, it instead left you wondering who was going to be spread eagle on the table next.

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