In her book The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution, Elisabeth Lloyd, philosopher of science, provides an exhaustive investigation into the female orgasm. After exploring many theories about the orgasm's origins and purposes, she concludes that it is a vestigial trait like men's nipples, a by-product of embryonic development in the womb. The sole purpose of the orgasm, she told a reporter from the New York Times, is fun.
Sarah Ruhl is also interested in the orgasm, which serves as the prism through which she views the entire Victorian world — and, by extension, our own — in her play, In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play. From the orgasm, entirely misunderstood and invisible in those repressive times, emanate ripples that change not only the relationships between women and men, but love itself in all its manifestations. In the Next Room is set in the 1880s, when doctors believed that many kinds of illness were caused by hysteria and began in the uterus. (The word "hysteria" derives from the Greek word for womb.) To cure conditions ranging from headache and fatigue to temporary blindness, the womb needed to be coaxed back from wherever it had strayed by genital massage to the point of "hysterical paroxysm"; doctors performed the task manually, but once Edison discovered electricity, the vibrator was put to use.
Into the offices of the upright and dedicated Dr. Givings comes Mrs. Daldry, suffering from several ill-defined symptoms, and with the aid of his nurse, Annie, a student of Greek philosophy, the doctor provides relief. In the adjoining room, his wife struggles to cope with her own excitable energy, mourns her inability to nurse her baby, and wonders at the sounds coming from the examining room. There's nothing smutty about In the Next Room; Ruhl treats her topic with a kind of tender and shining innocence. She is reimagining a time when people simply didn't know what an orgasm was, so that when Mrs. Daldry experiences one for the first time, she has no frame of reference. She has never seen pornography or heard the sounds people make during sex. Her responses are entirely her own, drawn from deep within.
Presented by Equinox Theatre through June 16, the Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo Street, 720-984-0781, equinoxtheatredenver.com.
There's plenty of humor here, too, particularly in Mr. Daldry's unconcern at Givings's manipulations of his wife, or the fact that the doctor himself provides those manipulations with precisely the level of interest and involvement you'd see in a modern doctor during an anal exam. One of the funniest moments comes when Mrs. Givings and Mrs. Daldry respond with merry, incredulous laughter to the suggestion that the strange new sensations they've experienced can be caused by sexual intercourse.
And one of the most touching: Mrs. Daldry after her last session, thanking Annie, for whom she's developed strong feelings. "For what?" Annie asks. There's a long silence as Mrs. Daldry attempts to find words for what she's experienced. "The Greek lessons," she finally says.
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Kaity Talmage-Bowers gives Mrs. Givings a moving sincerity, and Charlie Wingerter's Dr. Givings possesses just the right degree of oblivious precision. Aimee Janelle Nelson shines as Mrs. Daldry. She has the kind of little-girl vulnerability we associate with Marilyn Monroe, and her silences and hesitations speak volumes. Adam Perkes is a gifted comic actor, but his interpretation of Leo, an artist and the doctor's sole male patient, is just broad and eccentric enough to unbalance the action. Still, Deb Flomberg's low-budget production, with its workable set and exquisite costumes, is every bit as much fun as Dr. Lloyd suggests, but it's fun that's resonant, deep and, yes, vibrant.