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The Vibrator Play Is Stimulating, Provocative

CFA Stages Ruhl’s comedy of 19th-century “hysteria” cure

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Sarah Ruhl’s acclaimed In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, which revolves around the reverberations, physical and emotional, of the late-19th-century use of electrical gizmos to treat female “hysteria,” is often hilariously funny. But director Adrienne Boris (CFA’15) chose it for her master’s thesis play mainly because it is, she says, “a really honest and raw examination of intimacy.” Boris believes those attending the current College of Fine Arts production of Ruhl’s ultimately uplifting work, often referred to as simply “the vibrator play,” will find it a revelation about the “magical, wonderful, but also terrifying” risks and rewards of truly connecting to another person. Running through December 14 at Boston University Theatre’s Lane-Comley Studio 210, the play features a cast of CFA seniors.

Ruhl’s play, which debuted on Broadway in 2009 and was nominated for a Tony Award, is set in the 1880s. The story unfolds in two rooms, a parlor and the consulting room of the reputable physician Dr. Givings (Caleb Cedrone [CFA ‘15]). A specialist in treating “hysteria” in women (this vague, stigmatizing diagnosis wasn’t officially removed from psychiatric manuals until 1950), Givings uses the recent innovation of electricity to dispassionately administer strategically placed jolts to a Mrs. Daldry (Ellen Humphreys [CFA ‘15]), who has been suffering from headaches and crying spells. Dr. Givings assures Mrs. Daldry’s concerned husband that she will be healthy after a few sessions of his breakthrough therapy. Meanwhile, Givings’ own wife, Catherine, yearns for a more satisfying sexual life with her husband, and her scenes offer some of the play’s most poignant moments.

In a 2009 review in the New York Times, Charles Isherwood praised the play as an “inspired new comedy,” noting that in Ruhl’s telling, “Application of that electrified wand in the doctor’s hand may inspire shuddering moans, guttural cries and exhortations to God, but the instrument is considered by patient and doctor alike to be no more naughty than a stethoscope.”

The details of the vibrator play are historically accurate, and it’s only with reluctance that Ruhl’s “hysterical” patients admit that their so-called “paroxysms” constitute, in fact, a pleasurable release. “It’s really interesting to think about the fact that in 1880, the upper-middle class didn’t really believe that women had sexuality—the point of sex was to please the husband and have children,” says Boris, who sees in the play a very timely call for women to take ownership of their bodies.

Staging the play in Lane-Comley Studio 210 adds a level of intimacy to a work normally produced on a proscenium stage, says Boris. Though it inspires laugh-out-loud moments, Ruhl’s work has many dimensions, including instances where audience members may find themselves shifting uncomfortably in their seats. “It’s so easy to look at it and say Mrs. Daldry is just looking for sex, but actually she’s looking for a full mind-body connection,” says Boris.

In addition to Cedrone and Humphreys, the cast includes Ana Gencarelli (CFA’15) as Mrs. Givings; Ally Dawson (CFA’15) as Elizabeth, a lower-class wet nurse; Laura Detwiler (CFA’15) as Dr. Givings’ midwife assistant Annie; Matthew Welch (CFA’15) as Mr. Daldry; and Nik Sadhnani (CFA’15) as Leo Irving, an artist and patient of Dr. Givings.

The vibrator play “is a comedy in a classical sense,” says Boris, “but it’s extremely hopeful and the audience learns something, and certainly empathizes with the characters. And maybe people who see it will learn something about the possibilities in their own lives. The play ends up being a salute to the possibility of true human connection, without sugarcoating what that means.”

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play runs through December 14 at the Boston University Theatre, Lane-Comley Studio 210, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Performances are today and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., and Saturday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12 for general admission and free with BU ID. Tickets and further information are available here or by calling the box office at 617-933-8600. To get to the BU Theatre, take the MBTA Green Line E trolley to Symphony or the Orange Line to Massachusetts Avenue.

3 Comments

3 Comments on The Vibrator Play Is Stimulating, Provocative

  • nathan on 12.10.2014 at 2:02 pm

    That wood fainting couch is MAGNIFICENT !

    Props to the props department.

  • CFA Major on 12.11.2014 at 12:27 am

    beautiful, beautiful, beautifully done.

  • Lee on 12.12.2014 at 10:25 am

    Excellent write-up. Really good job.

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