Kitchen Dog Theatre’s latest production looks at the medical treatment for what was once called female hysteria. Sarah Ruhl’s comedy, In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) earned Tony and Pulitzer Prize nominations. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reviews the local premiere.
- KERA radio review:
- TheaterJones review
- Front Row review
- Dallas Morning News review (pay wall)
- Expanded online review:
It’s the 1880s, and Mrs. Daldry (Catherine DuBord) is a well-to-do patient of Dr. Givings. He’s been successfully treating nervous ailments among women with a new-fangled electrical device that today we’d recognize as a vibrator. “Hysteria” was a catch-all phrase at the time for almost any female complaint that doctors couldn’t find an obvious cause or cure for (the root of the word, hysteria, is the Greek for “womb”). But Edison had just opened up a whole new world of electrical possibilities — and contraptions.
It wasn’t just the male medical establishment that was blinkered about sexual matters. The social norm was to leave it all unspoken, and therefore, unexamined. So the unhappy Mrs. Daldry is so ignorant of her own body, she’s dumbfounded at the pleasant convulsions the treatment causes.
Annie, Dr. Givings’ assistant (Kristin McCollum), reassures her.
McCollum: “This instrument has quite the same effect on all of our patients. Sometimes they laugh and weep, all at the same time. [pause] They often call for God. [laughter].”
It’s easy enough to be amused by the sexual cluelessness of the Victorians. And In the Next Room is definitely enjoyable on such a level. As one might expect, most of Sarah Ruhl’s women are frustrated and her men are oblivious to what’s going on (which, of course, is partly why the women are frustrated) — it’s a classic formula for a sex comedy.
But Ruhl’s play is more complex than that — certainly her main characters are. Dr. Givings is officious and misguided, but as deftly played by Max Hartman, he’s also truly caring about his patients and his wife, however he might occasionally neglect her. And while we sympathize with his wife, Catherine — who’s tormented by her inability to breastfeed their newborn — as played by Martha Harms, she can be annoying. She’s an impetuous chatterbox. She’s also the traditional Pandora: Curious about all the happy shrieks coming from her husband’s “operating theater” — and feeling neglected and alone — she picks the lock.
To all this, Ruhl adds issues of lesbianism, motherhood, art and race (the Givings hire an African-American wet nurse (JaQuai Wade) for their child — “better a black Protestant than an Irish Catholic.”) There’s even a male patient, a young British painter (Austin Tindle), who seeks treatment because of the physical weakness in his hands. He can no longer paint.
Harms: “Why would a man come to see you?”
Hartman: “Hysteria is very rare in a man [pause]. But then again, he is an artist [laughter].”
I don’t think Ruhl intends her play to be taken as historic gospel. For one thing, although Dr. Givings talks eagerly about watching scientific demonstrations of the latest electrical applications, he never mentions any other doctor’s work with vibrators. One is left with the impression that he invented the thing and is off, alone, experimenting in a wealthy resort town in upstate New York.
What’s more, as a demonstration of just how sexually sequestered educated Victorians could be, Ruhl has her British painter, Leo Irving, relate the story of a friend who knew about female genitals entirely from seeing classic statues. He therefore was appalled by his wife’s appearance on their wedding night.
What happened to him? Dr. Givings asks. Oh, the painter replies airily, he’s now a well-known art critic (which gets the inevitable laugh).
Ruhl is obviously referring to John Ruskin, the influential Victorian critic and social philosopher. If you’re interested, you can see my footnote below about the two logical/historical problems with this reference.
The point is that instead of history, Ruhl is presenting something of a comic allegory about achieving the ideal male-female relationship. In the Next Room is really a historic comedy of manners about gender relations and feminist self-realization — in that regard, it’s kin to the Kitchen Dog’s Charm from last season.
Comedies traditionally end with a wedding, this one ends with a lesson learned by its main wedded couple. It may be a warm lesson, and one with which many of us might agree, but it’s still a lesson. It feels too earnest and pat, something Ruhl devised for her characters, rather than something inevitably arrived at.
As a result, In the Next Room is not a great play. But it is a very smart entertainment, a sex comedy with brains. As directed by Jonathan Taylor, the Kitchen Dog production is a handsome one. Clare Floyd DeVries is the set designer, Bruce Coleman the costumer and Jen Gilson-Gilliam and Judy Niven provided the props, which presumably include Dr. Givings’ vibrating gizmo with its brass handles. Ruhl’s combination of naughty farce, comedy of manners and feminist parable is a tricky one to balance, but ultimately, In the Next Room should leave you feeling … pleasantly satisfied.
And afterward, maybe a little drowsy.
Footnote: John Ruskin married the 10-years-younger Effie Gray in 1848. Six years later, she had the marriage annulled for reason of “non-consummation” — a great public embarrassment to both, as one might imagine, considering that divorce was nearly impossible at the time, was viewed as a moral failure and any such private revelations about the marriage bed were unpardonable. In addition, for him, it didn’t exactly cast a positive light on his manly qualities or his authority as a social ethicist.
In a letter to her parents later that year, Effie revealed that Ruskin had been personally averse to her physical being (having postponed sex with her over fears of children, etc.). In a letter to his lawyer, Ruskin more or less confirmed this. Needless to say, this private correspondence was not known until much later.
In fact, Ruhl is repeating a theory that wasn’t advanced until biographer Mary Lutyens did it in 1967. What offended Ruskin, she argued, was Effie’s pubic hair. Other scholars have posited different theories: Ruskin was shocked by her menstruating or her body odor. Some have even argued that he was a pedophile; hence, he found an adult female unattractive. The whole murky incident remains in dispute.
But back to the play: It’s hard to imagine that a) Ruskin would divulge any of this to someone, even a ‘friend,” a point compounded by the fact that b) Ruhl’s painter, Leo Irving, is a young man in the 1880s, too young to have known Ruskin at the time of the marriage and court case, more than 30 years before.
So Ruskin would have been confiding in a much younger man. Well, perhaps he might have: By the late 1870s, Ruskin had suffered a severe nervous breakdown. His final collapse came in 1889.
None of this matters much, except to highlight the larger argument: In the Next Room is an intelligent (though didactic) stage comedy, and not a real social history, so factual accuracy is not vital. The anecdote is brought in solely as confirmation of the extreme separation of the sexes, a separation that Ruhl wishes to rectify for her couple.
Photos by Matt Mrozek