This weekend, Second Stage brings you back to the year 1880 with Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play).” There we find Dr. Givings (Conor Boughton ’15), his wife Catherine (Mads O’Brien ’16), and their newborn daughter settled in their beautiful home in upstate New York. Dr. Givings’ assistant, patients, and a wet nurse join them, and together the seven characters struggle to understand love, sex, and family within an era of propriety and repression.
Ruhl invites us to examine the early history of the vibrator at the dawn of the age of electricity. It was originally used to treat hysteria at a time when orgasms—or paroxysms, as they were called then—were thought to have little to do with sex. Dr. Givings, an early enthusiast of electricity and a self-named “man of science,” administers daily vibration treatments to his hysterical patients in his home office.
While her husband is working “in the next room,” Catherine Givings sits in the parlor, feeling inexplicably lonely and unsatisfied. These feelings are magnified when we find out that Catherine’s milk is “not adequate” to feed her child, and so the wet nurse Elizabeth (Ella Israeli ’17) must step in to complete what Catherine perceives to be her motherly responsibility. Unable to find companionship or emotional support from her husband, she instead reaches out to his patients for friendship as they walk to and from the operating theater.
One such patient, Sabrina Daldry (Leah Khambata ’14), represents the classic hysterical woman. After marrying at a young age, Sabrina is subjected to uncomfortable and painful sexual advances by her husband. By repressing this recurring trauma, she has turned into an emotional wreck. Daily appointments with Dr. Givings and his miracle machine seem to greatly improve her health. Then again, her advancement might have more to do with the tender relationship she forms with Annie, the physician’s assistant.
“With any show you direct, the characters really come to life; you start to understand them more,” said Director Kirby Sokolow ’14. “My understanding of these characters is so much deeper than it was initially, both through having wonderful actors bring it to life and spending a lot of time talking about characters; they just grow and become better, and I love them even more.”
O’Brien gives a particularly standout performance. Her multifaceted portrayal of Catherine Givings, a beautiful Victorian woman who is nevertheless strong, impetuous, silly, occasionally awkward, and unafraid of going after what she wants, is, quite frankly, flawless. You cannot help but feel sympathy for her as she struggles to express her lack of satisfaction within this seemingly idyllic picture of domesticity. O’Brien serves as a worthy companion to Dr. Givings, who is a great physician, but proves to be emotionally constrained by his own intellect.
“What men do not perceive because their intellect prevents them from seeing would fill a book,” Dr. Givings says in the show.
Boughton aptly portrays Dr. Givings in his sincere struggle against his tendency to hide in his intellectual pursuits. Despite his fear of anything that cannot be classified and scientifically proven, his fumbling attempts to hold together his crumbling marriage are incredibly endearing.
“I really love this show, not because it’s about vibrators, but because I do think it’s a really sweet and romantic show; it’s happy and loving,” Sokolow said. “I wanted to do something that I felt meant something to me. [It] was beautifully written and beautifully done, and I just wanted to bring it to life.”
Ultimately, though the characters are more than a century older than us, Ruhl’s story begs us to consider these timeless questions: how far can technology take us? Can it simulate love? Can it replace love entirely? Or is there something intrinsically tied to human touch, to the presence of another soul, that we cannot replicate? The show is playing at the ’92 Theater this Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; I suggest you go and find out for yourself.