Posted by: strugglesome | March 11, 2011

Sexual Healing: The Wilma Theatre’s In The Next Room, or, the Vibrator Play

Sigmund Freud once said, in reference to his case study of Dora, an extremely important and unusually assertive (in terms of patients) young woman whose neurosis alerted Freud to the concept of transference, ” The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?'”. Completely ignoring the term “feminine soul”, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that the majority of Freud’s theories have now been refuted, and is it any wonder, given his inability to relate to approximately half of the world’s population? But in late Victorian society Sigmund reigned as tsar of the mind, his wild new theories about the subconscious and female hysteria fitting right in to what everyone already knew about women, namely, that they were unstable delicate creatures unable to eat red meat, expose their ankles, survive without a bustle, or have a satisfying orgasm. I’m just kidding about that last one, the majority of Victorian Society didn’t believe female orgasms even existed! Which just goes to show, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Wilma Theatre has, of course, confronted Freud and the female mind before in its 2009 production of Terry Johnson’s Hysteria. This time, however, in Sarah Ruhl”s In the Next Room, or, The Vibrator Play, Freud and his theories about women are not the center of the work but rather one of many themes, including race, sexuality, isolation, marriage, motherhood, modernity, and why health and happiness aren’t always the same animal. Pulling directly from the traditions of Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov, Ruhl has created a drawing-room drama, or rather, a drawing-room and operating room drama, if you will, full of restraint and explosions of emotion against the canvas of a strictly restrictive society. Set in a spa town in late Victorian New York State , the play tells the story of Catherine Givings (Mairin Lee), a bubbly and blurting young bride and new mother whose husband, Dr. Givings (Jeremiah Wiggins) has invented a marvelous new device for the relief of the fluid build up in the womb which causes female hysteria. Sure, it may sound crazy now, but 200 years ago we use to bleed people to make them better and these days we inject lipids from the posterior into the labia oris in order to look younger, so, really, there’s no accounting for science. Dr. Givings’ device uses the new-fangled technology of electricity, an innovation that has some characters clapping their hands with joy and other’s shrinking from Edison’s discovery like librarians facing their first Kindle. Sabrina Daldry (Kate Czajkowski), Dr. Givings’ latest patient, sure seems to be enjoying her electric treatments, though, in an unknowingly sapphic turn, she prefers her vibratory experiences to come from assistant Annie (Krista Apple). And even male patient Leo Irving (Luigi Sottile) finds a certain amount of satisfaction in the hands of the good doctor, as “Hysteria is very rare in a man, but after all, he is an artist”. But the more Dr. Givings treats the people around him, the more discontented and isolated his wife Catherine becomes. Stuck on the other side of the operating theater, tacitly titled “the next room” to protect delicate female sensibilities, furtively listening to the buzzing and moaning within and wondering when exactly her marriage became of less significance than his work.

Tied into Catherine’s curiosity and resentment is her relationship with her new-born daughter, Leticia (which, of course, means joy, an extremely strong Chekhovian reference by Ms. Ruhl, given the Russian playwright’s love of metaphorical names). Leticia, bundle of joy that she is, is actually providing her mother with a great deal of distress as Catherine’s milk is “inadequate” (an impossible and clearly metaphoric condition) causing her child to sicken and grow thin. The introduction of Elizabeth, Mrs. Daultry’s African-American house keeper whose recent loss of a child makes her perfect wet-nurse material, both gladdens and distresses Catherine, further confirming her suspicions that she is a bad wife and mother. And while Catherine would “rather have a Negro protestant then an Irish catholic” given that”morality goes through the milk” (you can’t make this stuff up, I swear), it’s clear that what Catherine would really prefer is the attention of her husband, the love of her child, and a nice satisfying orgasm. In that order. How and whether it’s possible for her to actually have all of those things is entirely up to her, but in an age devoid of female empowerment, that kind of revelation for Catherine and the characters around her, isn’t exactly available at the push of a button.

Staged in an amazing set created by designer Alexis Distler, the piece is presented with audience on both sides of the action. Distler has created a complete world with two large rooms, the sumptuously decorated parlor, which clearly belongs to Catherine, and the pristine operating theater, which belongs to Dr. Givings. .  Distler’s set allows the audience to feel the intimacy of this piece, the private issues between the Givings are visible from every angle, no character has anywhere to hide. Electric lights haunt the set, flickering on and off, constantly reminding us of their seductive convenience, their ability to banish all the shadows and lay everything bare. Joining these lights is Thom Weaver’s lighting design, a well executed plot which subtly highlights the action and directs the eye. Christopher Colucci’s intriguing and slightly eerie sound design is most evident in the scene changes, which are scored with Colucci’s original compositions set to female voices chanting pieces of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Rounding out the design are Oana Botez-Ban’s elegant costumes, which manage to be both modern and classic, and seems to draw from Liberty of London’s famous prints. All of the design works in excellent harmony, serving the story clearly and appropriately, something that should happen all the time and almost never does.

Part of what makes Chekhov and Ibsen such timeless playwrights is that they don’t judge their characters. They paint pictures of people with all kinds of morals or lacks thereof, but all with the same brush. We can sympathize with the Noras and the Hedda Gablers, the Sonyas and the Yelenas, even as we dislike them, because they aren’t there to prove a point, they simple are. Ruhl is not quite as even-handed with her characters, some, like Mrs. and Mr. Daultry and Leo Irving, fit in as rather original people but still very much belonging in the period and world of the play. Others, like Catherine and Elizabeth, seem to stand outside of the piece, pointing their fingers and saying to the audience “look how silly it all is”, and frankly, this is unnecessary. We don’t need the characters in the play to directly confront us with the absurdities and injustices of the play, we receive that information the second we see that they are wearing corsets. Catherine especially feels out-of-place, her fumbled babbling and consistently gauche faux pas read not as charming outbursts of a repressed young matron but rather as direct critics of the society around her. To be fair, this may be more a product of Lee’s acting than Ruhl’s writing; the actress often reads as more irritating then exuberant, Ruhl’s intentionally stiff and metaphoric language coming out as grating and overly precious rather than natural. Lee moves from willful impetuousness to clipped anger, and while we want to sympathize with her it’s difficult when she doesn’t feel like she belongs inside this piece, but rather exists as an outside observer. Ironically enough, we are more drawn to Wiggins’ Dr. Givings, a role he performs with empathy and skill, showing the audience the baffled confusion of an extremely logical man who has given his wife everything he thinks she wants. He’s a man with a dream, the dream to end what he sees as physical problems, never seeing the emotional causes, and his gradual understanding of his wife’s true need to be looked at, to be acknowledged, to be really seen, feels like the real crux of the work.

In contrast to Lee, Alladin’s Elizabeth fights the urge to level judgement on the world around her, though it does seem inherent in the role, and is excellent as the quietly destroyed perpetually marginalized “help”, moving through each scene with the weight of her lost child gracefully carried on her shoulders. Czajkowski is excellent and utterly believable in her role as Sabrina Daldry, granting empathy, humor and heavily sublimated pain to what could have been a caricature of a hysterical housewife in another actresses hands, giving simple lines like “[My husband] likes me to be a certain way” all the power and discomfort they deserve. The moment she shares with Apple’s starchy but serene Annie is beautifully heartbreaking, Czajkowski lets every step of the interaction be seen and felt before slipping gently back into etiquette, leaving Apple to struggle to pull herself together and continue with her lonely life.  Mr. Daldry (John C Vennema) is also very good, huffing at the inconvenience of a less than cheerful wife, living authentically as a completely unenlightened product of his times. Sotille’s Leo Irving is a blissfully over the top artiste (note the extra e), swanning around like a Romantic era poet transplanted 60 years into the future, Byronic locks swinging in the wind. Sotille cleverly presents his character to the women of the story as an enlightened and modern man, only to beautifully betray us all with his exit, allowing us to see Irving as the most selfish one of all, a man who only sees women as what they can do for him and his art.

It doesn’t seem to matter how far we as a society progress or how hip it is to be sexually enlightened, sex continues to be a sticky subject. Or rather, women having sex seems to be the taboo issue, which is odd, considering that no one has sex in a vacuum(I’m assuming). But while male sexuality is celebrated, female sexuality is denigrated; centuries of thinking would have us imagine that women are above such base and earthy things like orgasms. The sexless chaste female ideal haunts us to this day. For every Madonna, there’s a Mary Magdalene, one Hester Prynne per every Lucretia. Good girls get patted on the head and bad girls get thrown to the wolves and every woman is Caesar’s wife, and must be above reproach. The trouble with this is, among other things, the small matter that it robs women of any kind of identity. When Catherine explains that “[She doesn’t] know what kind of person [she is]” it can’t help but resonate through the audience and reference Nora of A Doll’s House when she says to her husband, “I think that before all else I am a human being, just as much as you are — or, at least, I will try to become one.” Some women, like Catherine, get to say these things, but most women, like every other woman in this play, don’t. And despite a few flaws, Ruhl’s work consistently gives women the opportunity to speak, and men the opportunity to respond, and even if you don’t like the conversation, it’s vital that it be allowed to happen.

The Wilma Theater’s production of In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play will be running from now until April 3rd, and will include a talk back with playwrights Sarah Ruhl and Paula Vogel on Sunday, March 20th. Pick up tickets here.

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