On paper, the staging of In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) at GableStage at the Biltmore would read like Sex and the City set in Victorian times: women experimenting sexually, a full nude scene involving a male, vibrators a-plenty (including a very intimidating anal contraption), and a lot of female bonding over tea.
But in reality, while sexual pleasure is an overarching theme, there is little gratuitous eroticism. The ever-humming vibrator in the background serves merely as a tool to showcase a variety of late 19th Century women as imagined by playwright Sarah Ruhl: the frustrated middle-class white woman who yearns for freedom and passion, the black woman who is forced to yield control of her body, the gay woman who is cornered into a lonely existence under the weight of societal mores.
The plot centers around the real-life history of the invention of the vibrator, which originated as a medical tool to cure women of "hysteria." Set in the 1880s, the play uses the dawn of electricity as a parallel to the sexual awakenings of the characters.
Catherine Givings (played by a wide-eyed Julie Kleiner), is the wife of a stern doctor (Jim Ballard) who treats patients in his home. By nature passionate and inquisitive, she is overcome with curiosity when she hears her husband's clients moaning and crying out "in the next room."
Drowning in her own feelings of inadequacy as a mother and in her emotion-less marriage, she enlists the help of Ms. Daldry, one of the patients (played by Irene Adjan), and the two begin to experiment with the vibrator on each other.
During that time, it was common to hire a woman whose baby had died to breastfeed another woman's child. And yet another character, Leo Irving (Ricky Waugh), plays an eccentric artist, seeming like the person Ms. Givings could have been had she been born a man and not a woman.
Director Joseph Adler did a great job of staging action across the difficult set -- the stage is split horizontally so there is a large "window" into the doctor's office, and the audience is focused on action both inside and outside that room. And the Victorian costumes -- frilly frocks, velvet bodices, long waistcoats -- were elaborate and beautiful to look at.
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In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) will be staged Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. through June 12. There is no 7 p.m. performance on May 15. Tickets cost $37.50 to $47.50. Call 305-445-1119 or visit gablestage.org.