My sister and I attended an intriguing and quite funny play: Sara Ruhl’s “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play” at ACT Theatre in Seattle. The play was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and nominated for three Tony Awards. As Pat said at the end of the play, “If I’d known what the play was about before I saw it, I probably wouldn’t have come – but I did enjoy it!”
It’s set in a New York City suburb, perhaps Saratoga Springs during the latter part of the 19th Century, in the home-office of a doctor who treats hysteria in women. At that time, any dissatisfaction, disillusionment, despondency, mental disorder or frustration (sexual or otherwise) on the part of a woman was treated as hysteria, caused by “a toxic accumulation of vapors in the uterus that affected physical and mental well-being.” Even the ancient Greeks defined women’s problems as hysteria. It was based on a patriarchal point of view that women were susceptible to all kinds of hormonal illnesses and could not be trusted to make serious decisions, manage property, decide on their children’s futures, pursue an intellectual life or desire anything more than motherhood.
There is a very interesting article in the program entitled “The Wonderful O, or a Short History of Hysteria” by Margaret Layne, discussing the historical definitions of women’s hysteria. It was listed as a mental disorder of some 75 pages in the 1880s when this play takes place, until eventually whittled away by increased diagnostic tools and psychotherapy until being deleted from the American Psychological Association list of ailments in 1951.
The play and Margaret Layne’s essay reminded me of several books that we read in my Broads with Books club: “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charoltte Perkins Gilman, “One Thousand Women” by Jim Fergus, and anything written by Edith Wharton about old New York City’s repressed, constricted and inbred society, including “The House of Mirth” in 1905 and “The Age of Innocence”, the 1921 Pulitzer Prize winner. All pertain to the treatment of hysteria and Wharton’s works in particular give note of the causes of hysteria.
Since Edison’s discovery of a practical way of producing electricity and wiring a community to get it, Dr. Givings (Jeff Cummings) invented an electrical machine to assuage this hysteria in women. He has invented a vibrator. Since sex education for women or men was not proper, men got their education from peers or “loose women”, and women just didn’t have any sex education. It was particularly morally reprehensible for women to pursue any sexual pleasure and they were trained to submit to their husbands, oftentimes as ignorant of sexual processes as their wives.
Well, Catherine Givings (Jennifer Sue Johnson), wife of the good doctor, has recently given birth to baby Leticia and is very frustrated and disappointed in her lack of enough milk to help the baby grow and prosper. She is chagrined and embarrassed to have to hire a wet nurse to feed Leticia.
A friend of the family, Mr. Daldry’s (Michael Patten) young wife Sabrina (Deborah King) is receiving treatments for her apparent hysteria from Dr. Givings. The Daldry’s housekeeper Elizabeth (Tracy Michelle Hughes) has recently birthed a boy who died, and she has more than enough milk. Daldry volunteers to bring her over for an interview. A grieving Elizabeth is hired to come three times a day to feed Leticia.
Since Catherine has heard such strange noises from the “operating room”, she is curious about the treatments. The doctor and his midwife/assistant Annie (Mary Kae Irvin) refuse to give her any information and when Catherine requests a treatment from her husband, he fearfully and patronizingly refuses. So, when Sabrina Daldry and she sit together while waiting for their husbands, Catherine asks about the treatments and what’s actually happening. They go into the operating room, after Catherine picks the door lock with a hairpin, and they give each other a treatment. Recognizing the sexual release she receives, Catherine is more than ready for the machine.
But treatments are not limited to women. Dr. Givings has a new patient, an artist/painter Leo Irving (Connor Toms) who is unable to create anything since the woman he loved turned him away. He’s young, dashing and wildly romantic to Catherine. She engages him in conversation and becomes convinced that he’s in love with her, when he’s actually fallen in love with Elizabeth the wet nurse after painting her and Leticia as a modern Madonna. More sad and hilarious complications ensue.
Kurt Beattie has thoughtfully directed a taut play with many laugh-out-loud moments, keeping the action right on track and on tempo.
Matthew Smucker’s scenic design is masterful. He’s created a Victorian home with one doorway, a 20-foot tall, much-dressed window, a settee and chair. The operating room is entered from the hall with an imaginary door that closes and locks via sounds. The operating room is bare bones with an exam table, the machines (one each for female and male treatments) and a small table, and, let us not forget the countless, spotless white sheets to drape the patients, who have stripped to their very decorous underwear.
Catherine Hunt has designed interesting dresses with many ruffles, ruchings, bustles and assorted furbelows for the three women and one very well-fitting and utilitarian uniform and cap for Annie. The two husbands are dressed in very suitable dark suits; however, as a mark of his artistic temperament, the artist Leo wears an out of style suit and a very large floppy scarf tied into a loose bow. The most interesting part of the costuming are the Victorian underclothes, layers and layers for the women from loose pantaloons to tight corsets and for the men, boxy unfitted undergarments. In one scene, all the characters appear in their underwear and then you can compare and contrast the different preferences.
“In the Next Room, or the vibrator play” runs at ACT Theatre until August 28 with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Evening performances are at 7:30 from Tuesdays through Thursdays as well as Sunday evenings, and at 8p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. For more information or tickets, call the box office at 206-292-7676 or go online to www.acttheatre.org.