Whether to be ignorant of the things happening in the next room or to be completely upended by them is not Mrs. Givings' choice to make. Nor can she choose to learn more about the work of her husband, a doctor (Chad Siebert) who practices from home "curing" women of their "hysteria" by inducing loud, pleasurable-sounding paroxysms from them.
The early 1900s found women being treated for a variety of feelings — depression, sadness, happiness — with manually or electrically induced orgasms. The last couple years have seen those treatments highlighted on stage in Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, which will make its Colorado debut this month at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
There, Doctor and Mrs. Givings (Stephanie Philo) deal with a marriage built on camaraderie, but not passion; friendliness, but not sharing; and the rearing of a family, but without confidence. The doctor's attentions mainly go to his patients, including one Mrs. Daldry (Tracy Liz Miller), whose emotional distress leads her and her husband to the Givings' door, but whose enjoyment of the vibrating metal rod brings her back.
Scott RC Levy, director of performing arts at the museum, says scoring the state premiere is just a small part of a larger shift he'd like to see in the theater.
"I was more interested in finding a piece that was really contemporary, because the [FAC] theater company does not typically — like in the past, has not done work that's less than five years old," Levy says.
"I think that [In the Next Room] had just closed on Broadway when I read the play. Then when I started doing some more research ... I recognized that we had an opportunity to actually do the Colorado premiere of this play. And so I really did, I worked very hard at getting the rights to do it. Because that only helps the brand awareness of the theater company, and the community."
Innocent, but not
Though the play enjoys an interest-piquing disclaimer from the theater company — "... the vibrator play contains adult situations" — Philo says it's actually less titillating than you'd expect.
"I think the big part of this journey is that this starts when she starts discovering, or inquiring, what is actually going on in the next room," she says of her character.
Like much of the cast, director Joye Cook-Levy (wife of Scott) learned about the medicinal treatment from the play itself.
"The vibrator was invented so doctors didn't have to spend so much time working out the manual treatment anymore," Cook-Levy says. "This was like an aid for them; completely clinical, absolutely nothing sexual.
"When I started working on the play, too, I had to suss out, how does Dr. Givings — how does he not know what he's doing? But there was no cultural connection, societal connection, to understanding that a woman could have any sexual feelings whatsoever."
Of course, this isn't strictly true. The Technology of Orgasm, the reading of which inspired Ruhl's 2010 Tony- and Pulitzer-nominated play, contains a passage from 1653 in which it's clear that the writers consider "paroxysms" a useful medical treatment, but recognize that sexual stimulation need not just come from a doctor. "It is less often recommended for very young women, public women, or married women, for whom it is a better remedy to engage in intercourse with their spouses."
Problematically for the main couple, this assumes you're paying attention to your spouse in the first place.
"His wife is in the house, and I think he has a hard time flipping back and forth between being a husband and working. And that's a very common thing," says Siebert. "I think a modern-day audience can certainly look at that and see reflections of themselves, and of their own marriage, through the device of a vibrator, among other things."
In any case, the this-is-all-new attitude — which extends to Mrs. Givings' fascination with the just-developed electric light — is clear throughout the play.
"And I love it: The night of the first read-through, one of the actors said that what was striking was, it felt like, in the end, this play is not about sex at all, it's about love," says Scott RC Levy. "And I love that quote. I think that's right.
"And the title, if you don't know what the play is and you just read the title, I think you can very easily take your mind to a certain place. But in a way, watching a play, you can do that, too; you can take your mind wherever you want to, because we're giving you the space to imagine things."
Going for gnosis
So, with half the puzzle solved, we move to what In the Next Room, or the vibrator play is actually about.
It's about Mrs. Givings desiring the attention and approval of a workaholic Dr. Givings, but gleefully chatting with anybody just to stay distracted. It's about her husband saying she can't know more about his activities, and, oh, could she also find a wet nurse for their newborn, because her own milk's not rich enough?
It's about a wet nurse (Marisa Hebert) who's just lost a son, fighting through feeding another baby that's not hers.
And ultimately, as Ruhl told NPR in 2009, she hopes it all ties together: "Getting out of ... your own room of your own mind or your own body, and being, you know, metaphorically in the same room as someone else — whether it be your partner, whoever you're having sex with, your husband, your wife, you know, what have you — I think getting in the same room is kind of the dream of the play in a way."
Getting in the same room as the play itself has become something of a big deal on its own. Reached by Twitter, John Moore, a respected ex-theater critic for the Denver Post, wrote, "It's exciting CSFAC is doing it ... Wish I were still writing for plays like that one."
The museum's director says that sounds about right.
"It being the Colorado premiere of this Pulitzer Prize-finalist play that is now one of the most-produced plays in the country this season, that in and of itself, is a highlight," Levy says. "Absolutely it is its own moment, and plugging it into the slot was part of the process, too. You know, it is a romance in the end, and we're doing it around Valentine's Day — it's a perfect treat."