Good vibrations

A man is lying on a table. Another stands over and behind him, reaching under a sheet with a sort of pole rammed into the lower half of the first man, in a place where … well, we can only imagine where. (This is theater, after all.) They pause for a note from director Angie Flynn-McIver, a recommendation about sight lines, before she asks them to do a portion of the scene again.

“Can we take it from, ‘It slips into the anal cavity,’ please?”

This is rehearsal No. 1 on the set for for In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), running at N.C. Stage through June 10. (Bedtyme Stories will provide appropriately themed gift bags for the pay-what-you-can audience.) The play, according to director Angie Flynn-McIver, unleashes “just enough raciness to make me go, ‘Oh my gosh, maybe we shouldn’t do that.’”

Its story is based on true history — women were, in fact, once upon a time, treated for “hysteria” by pelvic or vaginal massage, using a vibrator. Occasionally the practice was also applied to men. In the play, the hysterical man is an artist who has lost his sight via hysteria and thus cannot paint. Meanwhile, two women — Sabrina Daldry and Catherine Givings — are both frustrated by unpleasant sexual routines with their husbands. All three are treated by Catherine’s husband Dr. Givings (pun intended, I’m sure), who believes, “What men do not perceive, because their intellect prevents them from seeing, would fill a book.”

That’s the basic thrust of the play, but the story explores themes far more complex than simply the comedy of watching 19th-century characters discover the pleasure made possible by a newfangled vibrating machine. After all, history has proven that, when women control their lives and their own pleasure, it’s followed by greater insight into their bodies, a new lease on their relationships and a certain self-confidence to which they had not previously been privy.

While Flynn-McIver admits she didn’t see any specifically timely message in the play when she decided to add it to the theater’s 10th season, it’s hard to ignore the implications now. Given recent election year discussions about women’s issues (this particular production is sponsored by Planned Parenthood), some may find it hard to separate the play from the world in which it’s being produced.

“The more we’re having these incredibly regressive conversations about what women get to do with their bodies,” she says, “[the more] it’s important to look at this historical context where women didn’t know anything about their bodies. It’s not really spelled out in this play, but there’s a disinclination on the part of the people in power, i.e., men, to have women understand their bodies. That certainly feels timely. If you really want to see a funny comedy about vibrators, that [quasi-political] dimension can be lessened for you. But it’s not like we have to do any work to tease out these threads from what Sara Ruhl has written.”

In addition to the play’s ruminations on sexual liberty, there’s a difficult emotional angle thrown into the mix. Having recently given birth, Mrs. Givings finds she’s unable to breast feed and must hire a wet nurse to feed her child. Ruhl’s play draws parallels between her character’s loss of control over her own motherhood and that of her sexuality. As Flynn-McIver attests, “It’s easy to just think of things like that as historical — that’s what was done. But, for her, we see one person really dealing with the fallout of that. It’s incredibly painful for her.”

Add to that various characters wrestling with jealousy, identity and their social station, and the play shines a spotlight on just how little our societal norms have truly evolved over the past century.

All seriousness aside, though, In the Next Room is in fact a very funny comedy which earned three Tony Award nominations in 2010. Indeed, there’s a certain hilarity in the quiet awkwardness which hangs in both rooms — Catherine overhearing the vibrating, then orgasms, of her husband’s patients; Dr. Givings behind that closed door, administering the machine as his nurse watches on. What’s funny is how much the doctor believes he is providing medical benefit to these people; what’s funny is the very seriousness of it all.

— Kim Ruehl is a freelance writer living in Asheville. Follow her on Twitter: @kimruehl.

what: In the Next Room (the Vibrator Play)
where: N.C. Stage Company
when: May 9 through June 10. (Play opens with a week of special preview pricing. Tickets $20 for all performances through May 13. Gala fundraiser night on May 15, sponsored by Planned Parenthood. Pay-what-you-can night sponsored by Bedtyme Stories. Get the full schedule at http://www.ncstage.org)

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About Kim Ruehl
Kim Ruehl's work has appeared in Billboard, NPR Music, The Bluegrass Situation, Yes magazine, and elsewhere. She's formerly the editor-in-chief of No Depression, and her book, 'A Singing Army: The Life and Times of Zilphia Horton,' is forthcoming from University of Texas Press. Follow me @kimruehl

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