When I was in the seventh grade, I read Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. I should amend that statement, because read is a very loose term. I skimmed through the book, totally bored by the intricacies of social dynamics in the late Victorian Era. The first week of this quarter, I dropped a class on Victorian Realism after the first day, totally bored by the lengthy list of stodgy books. As good as my intentions are to stay cultured, I’m a product of my times – my attention span is about as long as a good features piece.
This weekend, I saw the Wirtz Center’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play). The show is a little over two hours, takes place in two rooms in the Victorian Era and the crowd consisted of mostly senior citizens. Perhaps the years have made me dull, or perhaps the humidity of mid-May has gotten to my head, but I can definitively say this take on the Victorian Age is anything but boring.
The show tells the story of the first vibrator, a machine originally intended to cure hysteria, the now-discredited illness associated with women’s wombs. Specifically centering on the doctor administering electrotherapy and his wife, the play brings a diverse set of unique voices to life. Heteropatriarchal marriage dynamics are challenged by the inclusion of a man receiving treatment for hysteria and an African American wet nurse whose child has recently died. Though the play deals with many themes, the central focus is the role of women and gender expectations in society, which resonates to this day.
In the lobby of the theater, the play's dramaturg had curated a small exhibit of vibrators available for commerical purchase over the years. The older ones are downright medieval-looking, but the modern ones are sleek and discrete – one is even disguised as a tube of lipstick. While this certainly makes it look like progress has been made, it is also evidence that there is still a prevalent need to cloister the conversations we have about women's sexuality. Hysteria as a medical concept is not that old; "hysterical neurosis" was stilll classified in the Diagnostic and Statisical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980.
Lauren Shouse, director and graduate student in the MFA for Theatre Directing program, feels as though the messages in the show are important, despite their grounding in a time gone by.
“We need plays about the past to help us question what is still not working in our present,” Shouse says. “What I love about Sarah Ruhl’s play is that she invites a new perspective to alter the way things have always been. She invites us to wake up and experience the change that happens from within.”
The journey of the central character, Catherine Givings (played with exquisite attention to detail by School of Communication junior Cordelia Dewdney), is ultimately about movement toward self-satisfaction, a theme that has resonance far beyond the bedroom. Despite the knowledge that their actions may be illicit or taboo, the characters come to boldly explore avenues to pleasure and human connection, even by unconventional means. At a university where a seemingly endless stream of work and resume-builing extracurriculars can mean long nights of solitude in periodicals, this is a lesson well-learned.
This theme of isolation, though not as splashy as that of sexual liberation, figures greatly into the production of Vibrator Play. It is easy to observe in the effortlessly nuanced facial expressions of the cast members just how the sparks of electricity can drive people apart as easily as they can provide a sense of new freedom. Each character reacts to the advent of electronics with uneasy excitement and nostalgia for the intimacy of the past.
Though the play is set in a different millennium, this message felt oddly resonant during intermission, when many playgoers, even the older crowd, immediately pulled out their iPhones to check up on acquaintances not present in the world we visited through theater. Shouse sees this isolation as tied to modern forms of communication and social inequalities.
“As a society, we are still struggling everyday to see each other as equals,” Shouse says. “In this modern world of technology we are struggling to communicate in that live presence with each other that is so important to creating meaningful connections with other human beings.”
For anyone looking for a way to improve their communication skills and bond with an audience through theater, In the Next Room, showing through this weekend at the Wirtz Center, is a worthwhile choice. For those just looking for fun period costumes and set design, the use of color and Victorian fashion is a visual delight. Theatergoers normally bored by this kind of material will find a positive takeaway.
“I think students should see this show because it offers us a new perspective on how to change things from the way that they have always been,” Shouse says. “And it is this generation that will make a difference in altering the status quo.”
Good vibes, man. Good vibes.