The only male who is addressed informally is “Leo” Irving (David Christopher Wells) but he is placed in a feminine position because he is a patient of Dr. Givings and an artist—more on that later. All four women do have forenames: Catherine (Annie Purcell, the doctor’s flighty wife); Sabrina Daldry (Emily Dorsch; the recipient of Dr. Givings’ ministrations); Annie (Amy Landon, the doctor’s nurse) and Elizabeth (Krystel Lucas, the Givings’ infant daughter’s wet nurse). Note that the two upper class women are identified by their given names and their husbands’ last names; and the two “servants” have no last names at all. Annie is a spinster and Elizabeth, while married, is “colored.”
And so, along with an erudite essay also available to read, “Sexual Power: Then and Now” by Susan Frelich Appleton, a law professor as Washington University, the audience is prepared for an evening centered around the uses and abuses of sexual politics. But what we get is a rollicking farce about a doctor who treats “hysterical” women with vibrators. By bringing them to orgasm regularly (“paroxysms” in the medical lingo) they release the “backed up fluids” that are causing them to be variously frigid, nervous, excitable, depressed, lacking appetite. In fact, presenting pretty much any behavior other than that which adheres to cheerful practice of the strictest Victorian decorum—the wife and mother as “angel of the house” in the literature of the period—could result in a diagnosis of hysteria. That is, if the woman was lucky.
This is a story too good to make up, and it isn’t fictional. This “therapy” was practiced circa the 1880s, and according to Frelich-Appleton, doctors made a very good living from it because their patients were perfectly willing to undergo long term treatment, even daily sessions. Such is the case with Mrs. Daldry, draped head to toe in mournful black when her desperate husband brings her to the doctor. She complains that the electric light bothers her eyes, and she seems disconsolate and fragile, but after a few “treatments,” she starts to perk right up. The underlying issue for her is an inability to become pregnant, so her problem is womb-related, all right, but she’s also unhappy in a marriage in which she observes the most basic Victorian taboo about sex: Women must not enjoy it. One’s husband would be shocked to find his wife actually having fun in bed. And Mrs. Daldry considers her husband considerate, as she tells Mrs. Givings about how he never comes in until she’s asleep, tells her to keep her eyes closed, then there’s the quick pain, and he’s gone. We don’t get that kind of detail from Mrs. Givings, but one assumes her story would be much the same.
And speaking of “perky,” Mrs. Givings is preternaturally so, but she also has some issues. Foremost among them is her inability to nurse her baby. She’s not making enough milk and the little girl is losing weight. Elizabeth is engaged to remedy the situation. She is a servant in the Daldrys’ house and recently lost her 12-week old son. So, she has the milk and no baby; Mrs. Givings has the baby and no milk, which is awfully tempting to describe as an arrangement that is tit for tat, but that would be unseemly.
Mrs. Givings is also terrifically curious about what her husband actually does do in his home office. She can hear strange sounds coming from his surgery, but until she finds the nerve to break in (with Mrs. Daldry in tow) she has no idea what’s going on. The biggest problem in the Givings’ marriage seems to be that the doctor is a cold fish. He proudly describes himself as “a man of science.” He seems incapable of the affection his pretty wife craves, so she becomes lonely and infatuated with Leo, the aforementioned artist, who seeks out Givings’ treatment for a case of “painter’s block” he developed after being jilted by his Italian fiancée. I shall let you discover what device Dr. G. has for him.
One of the funniest parts of this whole hilarious play is that these treatments actually do work. The patients improve and learn to function better in their daily lives. Mrs. Daldry discovers an unexpected side of herself and Leo becomes a painting fool. He even paints Elizabeth nursing baby Lottie, to which the demure Elizabeth objected at first, but for $10 an hour and the guarantee that Mrs. Givings will chaperone, she agrees to sit. Much is made of how there are no pictures of Madonna and Child in which Mary is nursing Jesus, but Mrs. Givings postulates, probably accurately, that as Christians, Jesus is himself food for humanity, not the other way around. She is also terribly jealous of the bond Elizabeth and her little Lottie form and feels diminished as a woman and mother, but there’s nothing she can do about it.
In fact, Catherine Givings seems to have a rather dim view of nursing babies, despite her professed eagerness to succeed at it. She’s also appalled by her husband’s suggestion that now she can have another child that much sooner. As she put it (and probably most of the mothers in the audience nodded in agreement) why would any sane person do THAT (give birth) more than once? But at the bottom of most, if not all Catherine’s problems is that she is simply lonely. She has literary sisters in Ibsen’s Nora and Flaubert’s Emma Bovary and so many others. (In fact, another of the “causes” of hysteria is reading French novels!)
Sarah Ruhl, as she always does, has some serious points, and she makes them , despite the fact that she keeps us laughing up until the last few minutes of the play. The piece is well-written, in that laughs nearly always come at appropriate times, and silence is respected when the characters are discussing their very real concerns, among them the fact that sex is relegated to a male “need” (and pleasure), that upper class women are ornamental creatures who occasionally (and preferably stoically) produce another heir, and the differences between the scientific mechanics of sex and the indefinable experience of full union with a loved one. The only character who understands the latter is Elizabeth, who explains it to the shocked Catherine and Sabrina. But Elizabeth has her own problems, as she has not finished grieving her son, and has an eloquent speech explaining just what nursing another woman’s baby has done to her.
The play takes place on Gianni Downs’ beautiful set, the Givings’ ornamental Victorian home, which even provides a trope for Catherine’s explanation about being grounded in the “objects” with which we surround ourselves. And Downs has rendered that cluttered but tasteful, fern-filled period look precisely, as he has the arcane jumble of antiquated medical objects “in the next room,” the doctor’s office. It’s hard to believe the Studio Theatre’s black box can appear so spacious. Stuart Carden’s direction is a marvel of composition and detail. Whether Catherine is giving her cheeks a quick pinch and smoothing back her hair to answer the door or Dr. Givings is looking discreetly away while his patients writhe in ecstasy on his examining table, the faithful Annie ever by his side smiling sympathetically or in the final, lovely scenes, he seems in complete control. And Dorothy Marshall Englis has outdone herself on the costumes. If this were a movie, she’d be nominated for an Oscar. Mark Wilson’s lights, Mikhail Fiksel’s compositions and sound design are all perfect.
It’s difficult to single out any of the actors because they are all so good, but I do think Ron Bohmer’s character has the longest journey, as he learns that love of his wife beats hell out of love for electricity (the marvels of which he constantly extols, and of course, it makes his treatment technique possible) and that he can’t just go from his lab to his club without a stop in between for his wife. He learns to feel jealousy, through which, under the careful tutelage of his wife (whose “angels” are outside the house in the snow) and at long last, love. It is also necessary for him to accept that sexual intercourse is not just about the penis because his “work” indicates that even he, a physician, doesn’t connect his treatments with evoking female pleasure.
By the end of the play, it has become clear that human hands are the most significant body organ, the most difficult to depict in art and the way that so many of our connections are made. Hands give succor, comfort and provide intimacy between lovers and friends. And here, the audience is in very good hands with Ruhl, this near-perfect ensemble and creative team, and the funny and profound experience that awaits “in the next room.”
In the Next Room or The Vibrator play runs at the Studio Theatre downstairs at the Rep through March 27. You may call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT