Jeffrey Binder is the Associate Artistic Director at Gulfshore Playhouse and the Director of In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl.
There’s an inherent sense of scandal when one sits down to watch a production of In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play. I mean, let’s be honest, it’s in the title. And we would be remiss if we assumed that you can’t infer a certain expectation from reading said title, along with either a wariness, eagerness, outrage, or sidelong glance to your audience neighbor about what you think is about to transpire over the next couple of hours on stage. By all accounts you may be mistaken in your expectations, and for many reasons.
Because truly, this is one of the more complex plays I have ever read. Complex in staging with simultaneous action flowing back and forth between two rooms. Complex in language, emotional depth, and sensitivity in Sarah Ruhl’s exceptional writing. Complex in how this play deals with status, societal expectation, cultural blindness, and naïveté that belies a profound need to connect in all of humanity, no matter what the age or era. Complex in its exploration of female identity in the late 19th century and the patriarchal lens through which science and medicine regarded a woman’s body and psyche. Complex in the struggle between technology and the human connection – between metal and skin. Complex between the natural and the unnatural, be it the play between electric light and natural light, a baby who thrives because another baby has died, between the binding frontal lobe demands of ordered society and the unbridled physical need for human connection. The complexities inherent in human relationships – parental, romantic, or otherwise: husbands and wives, platonic friends and would-be lovers, servants and their charges, mothers and sons, love and lust. And complex in the back and forth tug of war between heartbreak and humor that makes this play profoundly, sometimes painfully, real to those of us watching.
For all of the expectations the title of this play conjures, it is truly about innocence. Innocence and isolation. These are people desperate to connect, working their way through problems and needs that society has not only never prepared them for, and who have no roadmap or common experience to even express what they want or need. In our age of the smartphone and the internet, shared experience is a click away. No matter the problem we can always pull up a website where someone who has gone through a similar experience posted a video, blog, or podcast about it. Even though we may find ourselves physically alone in an experience in this day and age, we can comfort ourselves in the knowledge that someone else is going through it.
Whereas in 19th century Saratoga Springs, something is awoken in each of these characters that they never knew they needed, or knew they could possibly want – and what’s more, they have no idea how to process or activate it! They are stumbling through the proverbial (and sometimes literal) dark toward enlightenment, with no roadmap or signpost or streetlamp to light the way. Just as the 19th century technology displayed in the play are truly trailblazing achievements of their time, so Catherine Givings is a trailblazer in the woman’s experience – reaching, sometimes stumbling forward, to understand her own physical and emotional awakening and connect it, without shame, to the love of her husband.
The apple in the Garden of Eden plunges Adam and Eve into a brave new world profoundly out of their understanding and provides no way to return to blissful ignorance, and the vibrator in Sarah Ruhl’s exquisite play sparks within wife and ultimately husband a yearning, a realization of need, and hopefully, an understanding of beauty of connection and love. It shocks the human experience within and allows them to step out of their time and into all time in a way – revealing profound desire for a human connection that we all yearn for and still to this day struggle to achieve.