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In the next Room, or, the Vibrator Play

a Atlanta Premiere
by Sarah Ruhl

COMPANY : Synchronicity Performance Group [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Horizon Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
ID# 4172

SHOWING : October 28, 2011 - November 19, 2011



Return with us to the days of horses, buggies, corsets and bustles. In this age of electricity a handy new instrument to treat “hysteria” has Dr. Givings’ patients all aglow and his young wife very curious. Whatever is it? Contains adult themes. A 2010 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award nominee for best play.


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Hysterical Paroxyms
by Dedalus
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
To the “Victorian Mind,” extreme displays of emotion were suspect (possibly sinful), and, in a woman, cause for medical treatment. This “treatment” was invariably a form of “therapeutic massage” that led to “hysterical paroxysms,” intense reactions that invariably led to calmer (and happier) spouses. In her lyrically romantic comedy, “In the Next Room, or, The Vibrator Play,” Sarah Ruhl takes us on a period tour of the overlap between this medical practice and the onset of the Age of Electricity.

Dr. Givings is a specialist in gynecological and hysterical disorders who works at a prosperous spa outside of New York City. His hobby is electricity, and he has designed a primitive prototype instrument to help in his treatments, though he often has to call on his midwife assistant to manually “complete” the therapy. To the doctor, this new technology is just another tool, no more threatening than a stethoscope. But to his patients, it is a source of a brave new world of exploding sexuality and addictive physical sensation. Meanwhile, the Doctor’s wife, Catherine, is relegated to the outer room, where she struggles to nurse her new baby while over-hearing the affect her husband’s treatment has on his patients.

Ms. Ruhl has fashioned a marvelously enticing piece, a pre-feminist look at how one particular woman discovers the potential of her sexuality without betraying the less-than-complete knowledge of female response that defined the period. Catherine cannot understand why she has problems nursing her baby, and has to hire a “wet nurse” to provide what she knows she should be giving. She cannot understand why her husband hides in his private examining room when she longs for his company. Because she lives in an age when female sexual response is unknown (and suspect), she gropes in the dark for understanding, understanding why her body both betrays and excites her. Catherine knows SOMETHING is happening with these women, and longs to try the therapy herself, something that would cross her husband’s rather rigid code of ethics and proper behavior.

She’s soon sneaking into her husband’s examining room and trying his device on herself. Soon, she has soon found the oh-so-sweet mystery of life she has been longing for. Rather than ending the play in a brutal showdown between respectability and lines-of-behavior, though. Ms. Ruhl chooses instead a more intimate encounter, a scene in which walls and barriers melt magically into a gentle snowscape of intimacy and discovery for both Catherine and her husband.

I’ve adored this play since I first read it last spring, and was happy to see a production so soon. And, though there are a few gaps between my expectations and the production, none of them were critical of my enjoyment of this piece. It certainly helps that director Rachel May is an expert at capturing the gist of a piece and making it live for an audience, having her design team layer on many pieces of Victorian detail (I especially liked how the lights dimmed and the device barked every time it was “turned on”). It certainly helps that, with Kate Donadio and Brian Kurlander, she has found a cast that perfectly embodies Ms. Ruhl’s main characters. And, it REALLY helps that the production as a whole, in the intimate venue of the Horizon Stage, brings us face to face with the action (so to speak) and makes us live and breathe Catherine’s frustrations and joys. That the set magically “disappears’ for the epiphanic final scene was just “icing on the cake.”

What truly works here is the production’s reliance on the humor of what-we-know versus what-they-know, without slipping into that all-so-tempting sand trap of cultural smugness. Our enjoyment of the play does not rely on our knowledge of sexuality and female orgasm, but on our enjoyment of the characters’ surprise at these new and unknown feelings. It’s not a nudge-nudge wink-wink crassness that drives the play, but a careful unfolding of slightly naughty no-entendres – the characters know not whereof they speak – and a more explicit unfolding of emotional intimacy. This is a play about sexuality and intimacy you can enjoy without feeling slightly naughty yourself.

I also have to praise the supporting cast of Daryl Lisa Fazio, Tiffany Morgan, Doyle Reynolds, Xiomara Yanique, and, especially Tony Larking, whose artist proves to be a major temptation for Catherine as well as a reminder that this sort of therapy was not confined to women. Costume Designer Jonida Beqo is to be commended for her period costumes (include LAYERS of undergarments) and Props Designer Maclare “MC” Park definitely gets points for the electronic tools of Dr. Givings – Rube Goldberg would have been proud. Lights and Sound by Katie McCreary and Kristin Von Heinzemeyer all added to the ambience of a one-week-after-gaslight world, where electricity was both a boon and a bane, where the patter of raindrops competed with the buzz of hand-wired devices for supremacy.

“The Vibrator Play, or, In the Next Room” is a marvelous production of a marvelous play, one that combines period detail with very modern emotional intimacy. It was a theatrical experience that, frankly, left me humming (if not fully vibrating).

-- Brad Rudy (



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