The term "hysteria" has its roots in the Ancient Greek term for "womb." Those Greeks, you see, believed that a variety of symptoms and conditions were caused by the uterus physically moving about in women's bodies. Fast forward to the Victorian era, when (male) doctors were quick to diagnose their gentlewomen patients with hysteria (actually, it remained a diagnostic category well into the 20th century): This is the world of Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room (or, The Vibrator Play)," currently presented by the Pear Theatre.
Yes, it's a play about vibrators. The electrical stimulation device was invented by a physician in order to bring about a "paroxysm" in patients (that is, an orgasm), which, it was believed, would help alleviate the wide range of hysteria symptoms (speculated to be caused by a 'buildup of fluid" in the womb). It sounds funny, and indeed "In the Next Room" often is, but don't expect a campy tone or lurid jokes. It's serious when it needs to be, and beautiful, too.
Ruhl's play focuses on a sheltered young woman named Catherine Givings (April Culver), who's married to Dr. Givings (Brad Satterwhite), a successful physician with a passion for the newly harnessed power of electricity and a growing reputation for his successful curing of "hysterical" patients, thanks to his handy devices. Joining him is his steadfast nurse, the spinster Annie (Stephanie Crowley). He treats patients such as Mrs. Daldry (Ellen Dunphy), who's brought by her not-unkind but clueless husband (Troy Johnson).
Catherine and Dr. Givings have an infant, Lottie, and, when Catherine is unable to successfully nurse the baby due to an inadequate milk supply, Mr. Daldry offers to lend them his maid, Elizabeth (Damaris Divito), whose baby recently died, to serve as wet nurse. The final piece of the casting puzzle is Leo Irving (James Lewis), an egocentric artist for whom heartbreak and rejection have thwarted his desire to paint. Leo is an example of the rarer form of hysteric: a male, but the treatment works much the same. His romantic and unconventional ideas appeal to Catherine's pent-up desires.
Catherine is an energetic, high-spirited type who feels increasingly constrained by her lonely existence. She's constantly patronized and often ignored by her husband, who's forever dutifully and mysteriously "treating" women behind the closed door of his home office, the titular "next room." As the proverbial shoemaker's family gets no shoes, it seems the doctor's wife gets no, uh, "shoes." And it's not just a lack of sexual connection (indeed, neither Catherine nor Dr. Givings at first see any tie between sex and his vibrator work) but, more importantly, a lack of emotional intimacy that's taking its toll on Catherine. She's desperate for connection, disobeying her spouse by forging friendships with his patients in the waiting room, and deeply grieved that her experience with breastfeeding has been, as she sees it, a failure, leaving her unable to bond with her baby. Any mother will surely sympathize with her, as well as with the bereaved Elizabeth.
"In the Next Room" proves to be a very interesting examination of the ways in which women of the era were, body and mind, controlled by the men in their lives. It's also an interesting look at what can be outsourced as labor. In this case, Catherine sees strangers paying her husband to provide what, she eventually learns, could be considered a very personal service, while being forced herself to pay a stranger to feed bodily fluids to her own child. Upper-middle-class women such as Catherine and Mrs. Daldry have little agency in their lives (in one memorable exchange, Catherine admits that she has no idea whether or not she's the kind of person to walk unsheltered in the rain because her husband's always held the umbrella), and even their elaborate clothing (expertly designed by Kathleen O'Brien) leaves them dependent on the help of others to get them undressed, trapped by corsets, bloomers and endless frilly layers.
Ruhl's script is poetic and stylized but easy to get used to and swept up by, with charmingly oddball lines sprinkled in throughout. If she dabbles a bit in cliche, with Leo as the stereotype Bohemian and Elizabeth, the one lower-economic-class, non-white character, as the saintly figure who unwillingly exemplifies wisdom and sacrifice, she more than makes up for it with the overall quality of the show. Performances by the Pear cast are praiseworthy too, especially Culver and Dunphy as ditsy-turned-determined women on the verge of self-discovery (their scenes together were my favorite), and Crowley, whose role as Annie is one of the smallest in the show, but nonetheless effective.
For a show that takes place in just two adjoining rooms, there is a lot -- romance, comedy, drama, history, social commentary and more -- packed into "In the Next Room." The Pear's production of it is wonderful: highly recommended and stimulating indeed.
What: "In the Next Room (or, The Vibrator Play)"
Where: Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View
When: Through Oct. 1.
Info: Go to thepear.org