In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play Review — Victorians Seeking Stimulation

On the stage of Victory Gardens Theater, actor Mark L. Montgomery brings Polly Noonan to orgasm repeatedly during each performance of In the Next Room or the vibrator play, directed by Sandy Shinner. Even with the buzz about Sarah Ruhl’s play, the police have not shut down the production, because what takes place on stage is no more lewd than a Victorian tea party awash in double entendres.



The orgasmic Noonan, playing Sabrina Daldry, is fully clothed — by contemporary standards — even though she has shed several layers of costumer designer Jacqueline Firkins’ beautifully constructed reproduction Victorian garment: a ruffled two-piece taffeta gown, voluminous petticoats, the bustle that buoyed the back of the skirt, and a waist-cinching corset. Freed of these encumbrances with the help of a solemn Patricia Kane, playing medical assistant Annie, Noonan remains clad in an opaque cotton chemise no more revealing than what today’s woman might wear to the office. And once the character hops up onto a leather examination table that looks not unlike Dr. Freud’s couch — one of several clever touches in Jack Magaw’s pleasing set — the chemise is quickly covered with a sheet.

Only then does Dr. Givings (Montgomery) enter the room, wearing a vest and a blasé expression and carrying a stopwatch. He flicks on a switch — the characters in the play are still getting used to the convenience of electric wiring — and the medical device in his hand begins to buzz. Montgomery holds the device as nonchalantly as if it were a power tool, while the audience laughs in recognition of the vibrator he pokes under the sheet. Three minutes or so later — Dr. Givings keeps his eyes on his stopwatch and has just enough time to tell an anecdote about Benjamin Franklin — Noonan has achieved the “paroxysm” believed by some Victorian practitioners to relieve female hysteria.



Noonan’s character, Mrs. Daldry, had entered the room sickly and fatigued, recoiling from light and sound; she exits with roses in her cheeks, to the delight of her husband, played by Lawrence Grimm, who brought his wife in for a cure to the condition that has plagued their marriage. “Thank you, Dr. Givings,” says Mr. Daldry. “You have no idea what a source of anguish my wife’s illness has been to me.” In an afterthought he adds, “And to her, of course.”

Dr. Givings’ onstage treatments — which fairly accurately reflect historical fact — draw the attention of his wife, Catherine Givings, strongly played by the reliable Kate Fry. Even with what appears to be a happy marriage and the blessing of a new baby, something is missing from Catherine’s life. Listening at the door of her husband’s treatment room, Catherine hears Mrs. Daldry’s moans of pleasure. Like the deli diner eavesdropping on Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally, Catherine wants to have what she’s having. 


Sarah Ruhl’s play tries to be about much more than orgasm and vibrators. She attempts to explore marriage, class, and racism and weaves in discussions about electricity and wet nurses — Catherine’s breast milk is not sufficient for their infant daughter, and her scientist husband insists she source that task out to a professional, an African American servant named Elizabeth, played by Tamberla Perry. Adding another point of view is Leo Irving, a British painter played by Joel Gross, who needs to work on his accent and is the weakest link in an otherwise capable cast. Leo Irving seeks help from Dr. Givings after a failed romantic relationship, leading the doctor to explain to his wife: “Hysteria is very rare in a man. But then again, he is an artist.”

There are some lovely moments in the play — notably Kate Fry’s singing of lyrics improvised by her impulsive character — and the audience finds plenty to laugh at, including the medical device’s tendency to short-circuit, blowing out the lights. But many of the chuckles are as automatic as those on a sit-com laugh track, and the audience is never pushed to think deeply, or care about, these characters, who resemble stereotypes more than real people.


Sarah Ruhl, who grew up in Wilmette, is a popular playwright who sometimes rests on her laurels. In the Next Room is, I think, one of those times. The well-researched details about life in the 1880s can be fascinating to those not acquainted with them, although much of this material has been covered, with more feeling, in T.C. Boyle’s 1993 novel, The Road to Wellville. Furthermore, Ruhl fails to tie the themes of her play together.

Most problematic is the playwright’s patronizing perspective on Victorian men and women as featherheaded nitwits. The supporting characters have more substance than the primary characters — Patricia Kane’s restrained portrayal of Annie being a case in point. The main characters, Dr. and Mrs. Givings, are comically unaware of their true feelings. Victorians may have led lives that were outwardly prim, but that doesn’t mean they lacked brains and emotions. Ruhl and Shinner don’t give the talented cast room to express themselves meaningfully. In the Next Room is, alas, anti-climactic.

With effective lighting design by Joseph Appelt, sound design by Andre Pluess, and prop design by Grant Sabin, who must have had fun creating a Victorian vibrator sans batteries.


In the Next Room or the vibrator play though October 9

Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago

Tuesdays at 7:30 pm; Wednesdays at 7:30 pm (replaced by 2 pm performance on September 28); Thursdays at 7:30 pm; Fridays at 7:30 pm with 4 pm performances on September 24, October 1 and 8; and Sundays at 3 pm

Tickets: $20 – $40

Box office: 773-871-3000;


Photos: Liz Lauren


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