I remember the first time I saw a vibrator. I found it while innocently rummaging through my mother’s underwear drawer: nine inches long, bright pink and bearing the embossed face of Fu Manchu. My friend Shelagh and I had no idea what it was, and we were quite surprised when, at the flip of a switch, it jumped around like Mexican beans. Precious memories.
As confused as I was at the time (was it some sort of electric smoothie maker?), I now know that my mother was merely the latest in a long line of resourceful horny women stretching back to Victorian times, when the device was first invented. I learned this fact in Sarah Ruhl’s almost-too-funny-to-be-true masterpiece, In the Next Room.
The first vibrator saw the light of day in 1880 (before being placed where the sun don’t shine) as a medical tool to treat women diagnosed with female hysteria. Wise doctors of the time (male, naturally) decided these hyperactive gals were burdened with excess fluid in their wombs and believed the stimulated release of these fluids would result in a calmer, more compliant wife.
In the Next Room is rooted in this historical fact. It is witty and hilarious and has netted a box-full of awards as well as Tony and Pulitzer nominations.
Dr Givings (played by David Storch) has recently begun treating “hysterical” women in his home clinic, using the “Cadillac” of medicinal vibrators, the Chattanooga. He’s aided by the briskly efficient Annie (Elizabeth Saunders), a sturdy spinster who occasionally lends a hand to manually stimulate more excitable patients. Givings is distant and clinical when dealing with female patients, a coolness that extends to his frustrated wife, Catherine (Trish Lindstrom).
Household tension comes to a head when new patient Sabrina Daldry (Melody A Johnson) arrives for treatment only to experience an awkward Sapphic awakening under Annie’s expert ministrations. This coincides with the arrival of Dr Givings’ first male patient, Leo Irving (Jonathan Watton), a dashing young painter who brings out the beast in the neglected Mrs Givings.
“You’re really watching stories of people who feel this great inadequacy,” says director Richard Rose. “What the vibrator does is open up everybody’s sexuality, and they all run amok.”
Perhaps most affected by this erotic onslaught is the frenetic Mrs Daldry. From her first “paroxysm” (they weren’t called orgasms back then) she becomes a brand new woman while discovering a larger truth lurking behind her frigid marriage.
“The device puts the bloom back in her cheeks, but she’s very confused at the level of eros and desire that’s been awakened,” says Johnson of her character. “Basically, she’s a lesbian but doesn’t know that she is. It’s very perplexing for her.”
Johnson’s portrayal is easily the most compelling in the strong cast. Rose’s subtle touches of physical humour only enhance Johnson’s pathos and humour, making the most of a restrained Victorian woman coming undone.
Storch’s stuffy Dr Givings could easily become a one-note caricature in lesser hands, but the actor carefully excavates his character’s buried humanity and compassion for both his patient and his long-suffering wife. Lindstrom manages to be appropriately shrill and nosey, trumpeting her sexual awakening to an audience that wildly applauded for her. As for Watton’s hunky painter, Leo, well, if the sight of him receiving (and loving) his first prostate massage doesn’t set your heart racing, then you’re clearly dead from the waist down.
In the Next Room continues through Oct 23 in Tarragon Theatre’s Mainspace.