Women Find Themselves Via Orgasm in GableStage's In the Next Room

​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. 

Thrown into the mix is the character of Elizabeth (Renata Eastlick), a black housekeeper whose role as a "wet nurse" is negotiated by her original employer, Mr. Daldry (Stephen G. Anthony), and her new employer, Dr. Givings, seemingly with no input from her.

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. 

The play's mix of historical truth and imagined drama provides a fascinating glimpse into how different women's lives might have played out during a time in which men yielded all control and women had little financial or societal recourse to decide their own fates. And punctuated by surprise and humor, and fine acting by nearly all of the cast, the first act drew us in effortlessly, not an easy task for a play with only one setting (unless you count a very brief final scene).

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. 

But by the second act, we had correctly predicted much of what would happen in the story -- so obvious were the plot hints -- and the action moved glacially slow. Every pause between lines seemed interminable, and the play crawled toward the final scene, which turned out to be a striking change of setting to an outdoor snowy garden. By then, it seemed like the only surprise. The script could easily be condensed, and the plot tightened so there is more action to break up long dialogues. 

As a whole, though, In the Next Room succeeds in weaving symbolism and intelligent narrative to draw out deep questions about marriage, intimacy, and the never-ending quest for pleasure and happiness.

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.

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