'In the Next Room' provides audience with captivating, historical insight into all things sex, family

Review: 'In the Next Room, or the vibrator play' a 'must see' for anyone interested in women’s sexuality or life during the Victorian Era, will run through Feb. 15 at the Syracuse Stage.

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play was written by Sarah Ruhl to depict a multi-faceted look into family life in the Victorian Era.

Hardly uncomfortable by nature, the play was funny, poignant and shockingly accurate, as it worked through the trials and triumphs of identifying sexual pleasure at a time when sexuality was anything but.

Photo: Courtesy of Michael Davis
Marianna McClellan (Catherine Givings), Lena Kaminsky (Annie), Kate MacCluggage (Sabrina Daldry), and Christopher Kelly (Dr. Givings) in the Syracuse Stage production of 'In the Next Room, or the vibrator play.'

Set in a spa town in the late 19th century, the play had one setting, the interior of an upper middle class Victorian home, next to the small doctor’s working space known as “the next room.”

With maroon colors, porcelain tea cups, a grand piano and only one electrical lamp, the accuracy of this home for a doctor and his wife was completely on point. The garb too was amusing, as the women in the play were often dressing and undressing, walking us through what it was like to have layer, upon layer, upon layer be the traditional clothing.

The play began with a doctor and his wife both at home. She speaking silly talk to their new baby and he shut away in his workspace.

“Darling!” He calls out, “let my next patient in, would you?”

Next, a woman, similarly Victorian Era-ed out, enters their shared home and office with her husband. The woman, who seems nervous, is portrayed to have hysteria, an “illness” that plagued many restless women during this time. Hysteria, which means "pertaining to the uterus" in Greek, was suffered mainly by women. Men saw hysteria as a form of mental illness that arose when the uterus and/or womb were congested. This “illness” showed no actual signs of poor health and referred solely to a mental and behavioral stirring by women who didn’t fall into the traditional categories of mother, wife and seamstress.

The woman’s husband gives her away to the doctor, pleading with him to cure her, and she enters his workspace. Clearly uncomfortable initially, she lays down on a bed surface and is instructed to remove all clothing aside from her undergarments. The doctor then takes an electrical vibrator to her lady parts, stimulating her to give her an orgasm. This treatment method, which is historically accurate, is, as the doctor himself put it, “relieving the congestion in the womb that causes hysteria.”

The woman, who clearly enjoyed the treatment, alludes to being tired after and even waves the doctor away, hilariously portraying the concept of the “don’t touch me zone.”

The play continues, in the first act, with the woman and the doctor’s wife playing around with his “instrument” to arouse enjoyment in themselves while he is out.

Funny and farcical, the first act of the play had audience members laughing aloud and excited for the next act to ensue.

The second act, which incorporated much of the first's acts humor (funny euphemisms, allusions to what electricity would look like in the future, and spot on depictions of women post orgasm), was much more heavy than it’s preceding act.

With perfect depictions, Ruhl tackled the truth behind hysteria and the restless Victorian woman. She played perfectly to the anxieties held by Victorian women over motherhood, with the doctor’s wife feeling she was not moral enough to be a good mother and fearing her child doesn’t love her.

Motherhood was the most important and highly regarded purpose for women during this time. With such pressure and emphasis on a child’s health, care and love, women often felt differing emotions on raising a child.

Ruhl also worked to play to the lack of intimacy between husband and wives that was prevalent in the Victorian Era, by having the second act mainly comprised of the doctor’s wife’s desperate attempts to get her husband to love her intimately.

Issues of race, homosexuality, and psychosexual behaviors of women worked their way into the play, with the accuracy of a primary document straight from Victorian family novelist Walter Besant himself.

Ruhl made specific attempts to discuss marriage consummation and the sexual reorientation that comes with marriage, and alluded to the taboo but known cases of homosexuality even within married couples during the Victorian Era.

The play contained multiple loud and perfect portrayals of orgasms deemed by the doctor “paroxysms,” and made efforts to show the women comparing and discussing them with the utmost curiosity. This dialogue worked to show the innocence held by women of this time, as sex and pleasure were not often experienced simultaneously.

There is a famous quote regarding sex during the Victorian Era: "Lie back and think of England."

The quote, though circulated in the Motherland, perfectly shows that women did not have sex for enjoyment whatsoever, and that these women in the play had no idea this sexual arousal was sexual at all.

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play illustrates orgasms as a medicinal cure to hysteria, because, by releasing those tensions, the women will not be as nervous or easily disturbed.

This play also entertainingly alluded to the impressionable nature of women in the 19th century, with a flamboyant male character completely romanticizing European art and the doctor’s wife practically keeling over with desire to be taken there herself.

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play ended with the wife finally receiving the physical love she craved from her husband, and the husband himself amusingly not knowing how to react to a wife’s sexual desires.  

A play laden with innuendo and historical aphorisms, this play is a must see for anyone interested in women’s sexuality or life during the Victorian Era.

Tickets are available for purchase online or at the Syracuse Stage Box Office.

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