Scene4 Magazine-inSight

October 2010

Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

Sarah Ruhl's The Vibrator Play

Sexual politics, a subject right up Gertrude Stein's allĂ©e. The Steiny Road Poet prefers to use the French word for that narrow passage that runs between or behind urban architecture and where trash sits for pickup. Ahem, what the Poet intends to address is hysteria in 19th century women. It's a dirty little accusation against women by men as far back as Hippocrates (300 BC). Critics of various disciplines have labeled two of Stein's characters hysterics—a free-spirited black woman named Melanctha (in the novella by the same name) and a very out there version of Saint Teresa of Avila (in Four Saints in Three Acts). Those labeled hysterics were written off (not paid attention to or, worse, confined to mental institutions), but in the 19th century, the role of most women was similar to that of children: to be seen but not heard. Of course, Stein's characters always had a lot to say and they repeated themselves.


On September 4, 2010 as produced by Washington, DC's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, the Steiny Road Poet saw Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play, which comically explores 19th century hysterics and the prevailing cure at that time. Because Ruhl cares about the humanity of her characters, she makes this play an equal opportunity exposé of women and men.

As The Vibrator Play opens, a young woman walks onto stage with a crying baby. To pacify the infant, she begins clicking an electric lamp on and off, saying, "Look, baby, it's light." Quickly the audience learns electricity is a new service of the time and this household is right on the cutting edge since the husband, Dr. Givings, is using an electric vibrator in his "operating theater" (also known euphemistically as "the next room") to induce "paroxysms" from his clients. The purpose is to cure their hysterical states. Where is the vibrator being applied? Let's say, in keeping with the euphemisms of the play and its historic timeframe, to private parts. Here the Steiny Road Poet takes a time out for definitions.


Hysteria: a state of mind exhibiting unmanageable fear or emotional excess.

The origin of the word hysteria comes from Greek and equates to uterus. Until the 17th century, female hysteria was viewed as a disturbance of the uterus.

Paroxysm: A spasm or fit; a convulsion.

And a spasm induced by using a vibrator on private parts? No further explanation needed for a mature audience, is there?


The focus of Ruhl's play is Mrs. Givings and how she discovers herself. She is a young woman married to an older man, who would prefer to keep her in the dark about what his "medical" practice entails. Dr. G (played by Eric Hissom) is neither a morally corrupt man nor an overly controlling husband. He is just a product of his time but in choosing his wife, he has ventured away from the ordinary. In her youthful naivety and need for distraction as a first-time mother, Mrs. G (played by Katie deBuys) is curious about the world around her, including her husband's clients.

When Sabrina Daldry (played by Kimberly Gilbert) and her husband (James Konicek) show up, Catherine Givings, without her husband's knowledge, manages to escort Mr. Daldry for a walk in the rain while Sabrina is being treated. According to Catherine, a lot can be learned about whom a person is depending on when he or she opens an umbrella. Does one open the umbrella immediately (even if it is not raining)? Does one launch the umbrella at the precise moment when the rain begins falling? Does one wait until the rain falls steadily? As it turns out, Catherine has never had the opportunity to hold an umbrella herself, so she takes this occasion to hold the umbrella for Mr. Daldry. What she learns is that she is spontaneous and cannot predict exactly what she might do.



Perhaps this behavior is a product of her unsettled hormones, which also have not allowed her to nurse her baby adequately. Therefore, Dr. G encourages his wife to hire a wet nurse. Because the Givings and the Daldrys become quickly known to each other, the Givings hire the Daldrys' housekeeper Elizabeth (Jessica Francs Dukes) who has just lost her child. Initially, Mrs. G is resistant to hiring anyone because she feels doing so shows she is a bad mother. Then she momentarily raises the question of race since Elizabeth is a Negro, but that is quickly followed with trash talk against wet nurses. Mr. Daldry offers in hurtful jest that a wet nurse is "nine parts devil and one part cow," while Catherine exclaims, "Morality goes right through the milk." However, Dr. G has the final word when he declares that "milk is without intention" and that the Givings baby is hungry.

By the opening of Act II, the playwright has neatly established that Dr. G and his assistant Annie (Sarah Marshall) have transformed Sabrina Daldry from a light-and-temperature sensitive hysteric into a rosy-cheeked sexpot who now seems addicted to the cure. Act II also introduces the artist Leo Irving (Cody Nickell) who explains how he has become hysterical over a love gone wrong when he was abroad in Italy. While he waits for his turn with Dr. G, he talks with Catherine about the electric light in the Givings' living room. He said that "light without flame is like having relations with a prostitute" intimating that love could never ignite under these artificial circumstances. As an artist he is all about seeing and almost immediately he sees artistic fascination in Elizabeth and wants to paint her nursing the Givings baby.


Just like the love story mash up of Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream after Oberon dispatches Puck with magic love dust, the patients of Dr. Givings, including his wife, get completely mixed up about whom their partners in love should be. What Ruhl accomplishes in this tightly constructed two-act play is coverage of various hot sexual topics including deeply felt marital love, nymphomania, unawakened homosexuality, and biracial attraction.  

Pulitzer Prize finalist notwithstanding, The Vibrator Playdemonstrates Sarah Ruhl's mastery of play structure and character development. Every actor in the Woolly Mammoth production created fully believable characters and together their performance drew a strong portrait of what flesh-and-blood people are like today if not in the Victorian era. The Steiny Road Poet appreciated how eloquently the playwright bridged the time divide and made the play relevant to current day audience.

The S.R. Poet particularly liked Helen Q. Huang's costumes for Catherine and Sabrina at the opening of Act II. Catherine wore a pearl pink dress and Sabrina, a blue-magenta. The fabrics of both dresses caught light in different ways that made these characters particularly alluring. And maybe in Victorian times, the outer apparel was what really counted since bustles and constricting undergarments prevented an admirer from seeing the real body. Leo Irving tells Dr. G about a friend of his who, on his wedding night, was appalled to discover that his bride was hairy between her legs. The shocked bridegroom, who quickly got his marriage annulled, was familiar only with the pristine and hairless nudes of sculpture.

One other thing Ruhl's play did was remind the Steiny Road Poet why Gertrude Stein had to go to Paris to do her experimental writing. Too much tempting trash in those American alleys where the neighbors poked into other people's business.


View other readers' comments in the Readers Blog

©2010 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2010 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
For her other commentary and articles, check the
Read her Blog


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

October 2010

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