The Next Room, or the Vibrator Play | 03.09-27.11

The electric light is symbolic not only of change but also of freedom—that is, female sexual freedom.

 
“Turn off anything that beeps or vibrates” said Becky Debroux of the St. Louis Repertory Theatre, as the show began, lights dimmed and the audience erupted into laughter. Oh, the irony! This simple phrase, which I’m sure is said at every performance, was very much a foretelling of what the rest of the night’s performance would entail: innuendos and hearty laughter.
Set in an old Victorian home during the 19th century, The Rep’s production of The Next Room, or the Vibrator Play begins with Catherine Givings (Annie Purcell) rocking her baby to sleep, while her husband, Dr. Givings (Ron Bohmer) discusses the need for a wet nurse since Catherine’s milk is inadequate.
Dr. Givings’ first patient, Mrs. Daldry, arrives, and in walks the dramatics that has everyone stifled with laughter. Emily Dorsch fits this role perfectly as the distraught Mrs. Daldry and her equally frustrated husband played by Michael James Reed brings us the first round of laughter.
The Daldrys go with Dr. Givings into the next room, the operating theater, and talk about Mrs. Daldry’s symptoms: restlessness, sadness and darkness. “Her fingers don’t work in any room,” said Mr. Daldry. She has been overtaken with hysteria and her therapeutic treatment must begin immediately.
Thanks to the discovery of electricity by Benjamin Franklin and the invention of light bulb by Thomas Edison, cure for this “ailment” is available through electromagnetic therapeutic treatment. The electric light is symbolic not only of change but also of freedom—that is, female sexual freedom.
Catherine believes there are three kinds of people: ones who don’t use an umbrella, ones who never use an umbrella, and ones who use it precisely when it rains. However, when asked which one she is, she simply says she doesn’t know; this speaks to the inadequacy she feels as a woman unable to nurse her child.
This sense of inadequacy is laced through the play as each scene unfolds. The women are unhappy while the men are oblivious to what makes their spouses feel this way. The lack of fulfillment and satisfaction is what causes them to be unable to handle the electric light, for it hurts their eyes.
“They hear me talk and figure, ‘Why be shy?’” says Mrs. Givings, a rambler who says whatever comes to mind, providing hilarity every time. As the scene changes, we welcome Elizabeth (Krystel Lucas), the Givings’ wet nurse, and the battle begins for her and Mrs. Givings. While Elizabeth struggles with the death of her son, Mrs. Givings is coping with her baby not knowing and loving her as the mother.
In the midst of this struggle, Purcell’s character becomes fascinated with the treatments her husband performs on Mrs. Daldry. Her husband denies her the treatment because she is well, and it is wrong for him, a man of science to perform such treatments on his wife. So after one of Mrs. Daldry’s treatments, Catherine and Mrs. Daldry break into the next room and treat each other with the device as the music box starts and the Act One ends.
As the second act begins, we are brought to question society’s conventions with sexuality. The scene opens with David Christopher Wells as Leo Irving, describing his life in Italy to Bohmer’s character. In this vivid description of his various encounters with European women, you can understand the difference between the cultures when it comes to women and sex.
When a European woman kisses, she “kisses with her whole body, unlike American women who kiss only with their lips,” says Irving. This line shows how American women are kept in a precise corner when it comes to sex, only to please their husband and never themselves.
While women’s sexuality was the sole focus in the first act, it is in this second act that we explore male sexuality. Leo has been overcome with hysteria, a very rare diagnosis for a man. His treatment has pedals like a sewing machine which stimulates the prostate gland.
“But light without flame isn’t divine it is like having relations with a prostitute,” continues Irving. “No feelings, just body, but a little square of light can put out the darkness.” The metaphors of light and sexual fulfillment are woven together perfectly. Each character has their own darkness, but it is up to them to turn on the light.
This play challenges each viewer to go against the grain in every aspect. When the women figure out they don’t need the doctor to cure their hysteria. This revelation evokes a sense of inadequacy in the men, as now they can be replaced by a device because women are capable of “pressing a button.”
Love is another aspect this play forces us to grasp: mother’s love, as displayed through Elizabeth and the Givings’ daughter; forbidden love, as Leo falls in love with the married Elizabeth; and reinventing lost love, as between Dr. and Mrs. Givings. In love, we must learn how to tailor love to each other, as well as be willing to recreate and explore it together. Dr. and Mrs. Givings discover this rededication to love in the closing scene, as they finally make love…and he cures her hysteria.
The Rep completely nailed it with this performance. You can’t deny the jovial feeling as you watch each scene. Each actress and actor are completely cemented in their roles, and dedicated to make sure we as the audience understand the evolution of women’s sexuality and love, all wrapped in humor. | Ashley White
The Next Room, or The Vibrator Play (written by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Stuart Carden) runs through March 27 in The Repertory Theatre’s Studio Theatre. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Rep’s website.

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