Originally published in The LA Stage Times
It’s a sunny Saturday morning in the San Fernando Valley, and actors Joanna Strapp and Michael Oosterom are discussing the finer points of Victorian-era sex.
“In the Victorian era, they were raised to never talk about sex until your wedding night, and then you better be making babies like crazy,” Oosterom explains. He and Strapp aren’t historians, but they’ve clearly done a lot of research on the subject. “It’s not just the brides — the grooms were like, ‘I don’t know what to do, no one told me what to do, all I know is that we’re supposed to do this’.”
Which makes it all the more surprising that these same 19th-century Victorians were the ones who invented a device now known as the vibrator. Back then, it was used to treat hysteria, a catch-all term used to describe a variety of female ailments; today, it’s the subject of playwright Sarah Ruhl’s2009 comedy In the Next Room (or the vibrator play).
The play will receive its LA premiere Saturday when The Production Company returns to the San Fernando Valley, after three seasons in Hollywood, in an intimate staging at NoHo’s Secret Rose Theatre, not to be confused with the company’s previous Valley venue in Valley Village.
With the company’s artistic director August Viverito directing and TL Kolman producing, Oosterom and Strapp star as Dr. and Mrs. Givings, a Victorian-era couple who find themselves, and their relationship with each other, bewitched and transformed by the newfangled vibrator device Dr. Givings has installed in their house to treat his “hysterical” female patients.
Oosterom’s credits include the California Shakespeare Festival, Theatre of NOTE’s A Mulholland Christmas Carol, the Groundlings Sunday company and productions by Celebration Theatre and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, as well as puppetry work with the Jim Henson Company. Strapp has acted in television shows including United States of Tara and House and in productions such as Laguna Playhouse’s The Pursuit of Happiness, the Colony’s Mary’s Wedding and I’ll Be Back Before Midnight, and The Seagull and Peace In Our Time for Antaeus, where she is a company member.
In a tiny warehouse in Van Nuys that has served as their rehearsal space for the last two months, Oosterom and Strapp explain that their involvement with In the Next Room began in part because of Kolman and Viverito, with whom they had experience on other projects (Viverito directed Strapp in his productions of How I Learned To Drive and Mrs. Warren’s Profession, and Kolman understudied for Oosterom in Celebration’s Insurrection: Holding History).
But they were drawn to audition for In the Next Room in May by the play’s peek into the fascinating time period in which electrical power had recently been harnessed and Ruhl’s surprisingly modern take on marriage and the power of the female orgasm.
The comedic element of the play is what Strapp says struck her first when she read the script — think double entendres and physical comedy. But beyond the comedy, Ruhl uses the vibrator as a device to reveal the nature of the characters’ relationships with each other, creating dramatic shifts in tone that were challenging to portray, Strapp says.
“There are a lot of relationship questions raised. There are questions about mother and child, stuff that’s sort of deep but then immediately someone will walk in and there will be some crazy orgasm happening in the next room, so it’s not really allowed to get too serious for a long time, which is a good thing,” Strapp says. “Peoples’ relationships with the vibrator are a way to see into the other relationships.”
Because if you think Dr. and Mrs. Givings have a sexually and emotionally satisfying relationship (at least, in the way our modern-day sensibilities would hope), think again. As the play begins, none of the female characters has had an orgasm, and both men and women view sex as a necessary duty of husbands and wives, not a pleasurable one. In fact, to understand the realities of Victorian marriages and the history of vibrators as a treatment of hysteria, Oosterom and Strapp began extensive research after taking on their roles — at one point during the conversation, Oosterom even pulls out a copy of The Technology of Orgasm by Rachel Maines, one of three books Ruhl used as the historical basis for the play.
They’ve also read about the War of Currents between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse and the history of wet nursing (a plotline of the play sees Mrs. Givings frustrated by her unexplained inability to breastfeed her newborn). On the walls of the rehearsal space hang photos of 19thcentury-era Saratoga Springs, New York, a resort town where vibrator treatments would have taken place.
Oosterom says that research has helped him “find his way” through the Victorian era and learn how to explain moments that would seem strange to a modern audience — for example, the fact that Dr. Givings deals with his wife’s inability to breastfeed by hiring a wet nurse, instead of helping her work through it.
“To understand the time period helps me to justify moments like that and how matter-of-fact [a husband’s reaction to breastfeeding would be] — ‘Oh, let’s hire someone, let’s fix it,’” Oosterom says.
Of course, the play wouldn’t be subtitled the vibrator play if there weren’t scenes of women “enjoying” the device — scenes that Oosterom and Strapp say are not as salacious as you might imagine. The device itself is a large wooden box with a long cord that extends from the box to a small instrument, and the women always remain fully clothed while using it.
“Sarah Ruhl says in the script that they’re not supposed to sound like traditional orgasms. She specifically wants them to be this new experience for these women. How do you find that without making it too sexual?” Strapp says. “It’s like watching a baby discover its hands for the first time. It’s like, ‘Whoa, I didn’t know this could happen.’”
In Kolman and Viverito’s production, audiences who may have seen other productions of it — such as the Southern California premiere in 2010 at South Coast Repertory or in venues such as Berkeley Repertory Theatre or Lincoln Center (both in 2009) — will probably experience the play more intimately. At the tiny Secret Rose Theatre, audiences sit quite close to the stage.
The set is fairly bare-bones, consisting of simply a living room and the operating room next to it. The audience, then, will mimic Mrs. Givings’ constant proximity to the operating room.
“It’s an intimate procedure that’s strangely not intimate. There’s this conflict there and [the audience] is going to be right in our living room,” Oosterom says. “Throughout the play it’s kind of a problem that my wife is right outside the operating theater, but at the same time, it’s her home. It’s right in her face.”
Still, despite the fact that women are no longer diagnosed with hysteria and vibrators have taken on a decidedly different purpose than what Dr. Givings originally intended, Oosterom and Strapp sayIn the Next Room speaks to a variety of modern issues.
The trajectory of 19th century electrical inventions seems strangely familiar when compared to 20thcentury innovations like the Internet and cell phones, and the Givings’ intimacy issues are certainly not confined to days gone by.
“We may think Victorians were stuffy and repressed, which they were, but people in modern times can have similar communication issues and intimacy issues in their marriage. I think it is very relatable,” Oosterom says. “It’s one of those things where you think, ‘Oh, it’s going to be funny to see these Victorians look like paper dolls acting all stiff,’ and at the end you realize, ‘Wow, these are real people, with real emotions and real problems that have persisted for thousands of years.’”