Electric shock

"In the next room or the vibrator play"
by Sarah Ruhl (Kindle edition)

1.

I don’t have it in me to laugh at a woman who, for the first time in her life, learns how to pleasure herself. Nor at a woman who begs to be touched by a man, by her husband no less.

When I saw a preview of In the next room or the vibrator play, I was wary of cheap laughs drawn upon people’s ignorance over their bodies and objects being inserted where they can somehow fit. But the play is far from callow. The latter half of the title is a nasty trick, though, to incite curiosity; for the crux of the story is marital disconnection. Playwright Sarah Ruhl has written a clever drama, which humor is only incidental, never its driving force as what the adverts would have you believe.

2.

“That is how he fell in love with me, he said he was determined to keep up with me — he only saw the back of my head before we married because I was always one step ahead. He said he had to marry me to see my face,” Catherine Givings talks about her passion for walking and her husband Dr. Givings, a gynecological and hysterical disorders specialist.

Throughout their marriage, however, Catherine has been the one running towards him and him, away. Dr. Givings is always “in the next room” (a private operating theater beside their living room), where he cures men and women suffering from hysteria with the help of an electric vibrator. Catherine’s isolation, compounded by her inability to produce enough milk for their baby, and her heightened interest in what happens in the next room, compels her to demand for the same treatment given by the good doctor to his patients.

Catherine asks for what she wants — that Dr. Givings makes loving her as his job — which is admirable. The strength is borne out of recognizing her loneliness (“I understand solitude, I am very lonely”).

Aside: A recent Boston Globe article reports on loneliness as a huge health threat. The studies cited may be specific to middle-aged men with collapsing friendships, but a relevant takeaway is that while psychiatry has done a great job in de-stigmatizing depression (we now casually throw “I’m depressed” in conversations), it has a long way to go with loneliness. Not many dare admit to being lonely.

3.

The French call it “little deaths,” yes? Orgasms. Loads of these in the show.

In her stage directions, Ruhl advises, “These are the days before digital pornography. There is no cliché of how women are supposed to orgasm, no idea in their heads of how they are supposed to sound when they climax.”

In his director’s notes, Chris Millado — who's directing the Repertory Philippines production of the play — addresses the question floating in our heads: How do you stage an orgasm? “You can’t,” according to him. “It finds you.”

Following a story until it reaches its climax, and in the process watch the main characters reach theirs, is the distinct joy of In the next room or the vibrator play. Caisa Borromeo and Jef Flores, who play patients Sabrina Daldry and Leo Irving, respectively, share nine orgasm scenes between them (if my math and memory were to be trusted). Each of their little deaths lead to their own little tales of discovery.

In a gripping scene, Giannina Ocampo as Mrs. Givings has the tough job of conveying pleasure mixed with physical and emotional pain while using a vibrator — her release is no comic relief — and she delivers. Ocampo’s Catherine is both delicate and resolute. You sense in her a desperation beneath the veneer of dignity.

4.

Set during the dawn of electricity, the play presents the excitement, but mostly the anxiety brought about by this forthcoming age of technology (“Do you think our children’s children will be less solemn? A flick of the finger — and all is lit! A flick of the finger, and all is dark! On, off, on off! We could change our minds a dozen times a second!”).

Man of science Dr. Givings argues that electricity isn’t entirely new and mustn’t be feared: “It is harnessed from nature… when I was a child, I was stroking the cat’s back one day and was startled to see sparks rising up out of her fur. My father said, this is nothing but electricity, the same thing you see on the trees in a storm.”

Maybe he is right. If not for the electric vibrator, his wife and patients would not have reached self-discovery. Maybe you have to reconcile the seemingly good with the presumedly bad.

Even Catherine unwittingly acknowledges this in a paradox: electricity is that which “can put a man to death and also bring him back to life again.” It is that which weakens the legs and thereafter awakens the spirit. It is the spark that rises when bodies meet. That which collects above the skin, causing the wildest shock with the lightest touch.

—Originally published on GIST

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