Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Vibrators and Stoicism: “In the Next Room”

If Hollywood movies and ornately described
literature has taught us anything, it’s that somewhere in the 19th century,
Americans  (and the English) forgot what sex was and immediately closed up
shop with the exception of procreation. Of course, much of this owed to men’s
incredibly limited knowledge of how women worked, especially physically. 

Women with a range of symptoms ranging from
depression, to fainting spells, to simply being: odd” were seen as having
“hysteria.” The carefully crafted sensibilities of
turn-of-the-century Americans still had a few decades before the onslaught of
mass media, radio and lipstick coated flappers would turn their bloomers inside
out, but modern life still seemed to be tearing women at the seams.

Thankfully, there’d been a treatment for this
since medieval times: vaginal stimulation to the point of orgasm. 

And that’s the central conceit of “In the
Next Room: AKA the Vibrator Play”: It was a medical procedure and a chore
at that. Thankfully, by Thomas Edison and his masterful control of electricity
helped bring a solution in the form of the vibrator.

Dr. Givings (Mark Ulrich) is titillated. Not
by the sexuality, of course — the good doctor is happy to provide chit-chat
during one session with a patient as a way of passing the time. Instead, the
improvements in electricity and medical progress are his only sources of
pleasure; seeking out intellectual forums on electrical currents as if they
were opium dens.

But there are no sparks for Catherine Givings. (Jessica Bess Lanius) While a curious and out-spoken lady, she is
left to meander in a stolid house herself. Her child needs milk, but she cannot
provide it. Her husband devotes hours to patients while asking her to move out
of sight, like an unsightly spot on the carpet. 


However, when one patient, Sabrina Daldry
(Karen Moeller) transforms from a shuffling old maid to a vivacious and
rosy-cheeked modern woman after a few rounds of Dr. Givings machine, Givings
begins to get more curious about the machine’s use and, seeking a way out of
her darkened drawing room, looks to it for a new sensation. Thanks to Dr.
Givings only male patient, painter Leo Irving (Ryan Schabach), Catherine finds
a canvas for her new emotions. 

Bess Lanius creates in Catherine a complexity
veiled by the Victorian era. Her wild swing of passions, heartbreak, giddy
curiosity and independence wonderfully paint a woman straddling a cultural
nexus: even the lowest lows are muted by the stolid constraints of proper
society. Ulrich, while mostly a comic exaggeration of the good-natured, but
spousally-challenged Mr. Givings, is capped with a genuine innocence and love
for his wife, however distant it may seem at times. Moeller allows Mrs. Daldry
to romp onstage with the energy daily orgasms will give a woman, but explores
her depth (or, perhaps, lack thereof) ever so briefly during her last moments
on stage. 

The only performance that really earns
derision is that of Schabach. Perhaps it is the character of Irving, who plays
as a comic relief and central player to Catherine’s emotional tempest. When
trying to fuse amusement and drama, the two often dilute the other. But
Schabach’s performance is too self-aware, reminiscent of actors yelling on
stage to ensure those in the back rows could hear. Every other
character is their character, but Schabach is trying too hard to play his.

Despite the blushing titters this play’s title
and premise are sure to garner, there is a crushing sadness to this play’s
second act. Take for instance the character of Elizabeth (Marti Gobel), the wet
nurse hired to feed Catherine’s child into full health. Elizabeth is not just
stoic, she is stoicism’s representative. While her child recently died,
Elizabeth coasts across the stage for most of the play with a marble facade; even
with Catherine’s rather ham fisted questions about her dead child, Elizabeth
calmly explains her ability to persist in the midst of tragedy: She treats
everyone of her life as borrowed. And in the end, her son was one thing she had
to give back early.

The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote
much the same thing in the Enchridon, a stoic philosophy handbook: Live as if
everything could be taken away. And when it is gone, be happy that you had
it. So when Annie (Leia Espericueta), Mrs. Daldry’s nurse and sometimes confident, starts teaching
Mrs. Daldry the wonders of Greek history, it reveals much about her
character. Espericueta initially renders Annie as methodically robotic. It is
only after sometime later that we learn she has merely taken her Greek lessons
to heart and suppressed any yearning or longing for years.

While this play is easily touted as a missive
on female liberation or sexual exploration, it is, in truth, a play about the
tragedy of stoicism. The characters live not to embrace or kiss or to love, but
to endure, persist and survive. And that makes for strength and courage, but
only if their surroundings are equally as grey. When the modern era brought
flickering lights, it brought hope for new thrills, experiences, heights. But
the stoic lifestyle snuffs out candles rather than lighting them; when the
electric current brings both constant lighting and sexual stimulation, stoicism short circuits. Epictetus taught that a good man “goes about with
the caution of sick or injured people, dreading to move anything that is set
right, before it is perfectly fixed.”

Dr. Givings could easily use that as a mantra,
but with the exploration of modern life, it fails him and everyone around
him. Only a little shake up in the usual order can give rise to the sort of
breathtaking experiences that make life worth living in the first place. And
what better way to shake things up than with a vibrator?


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