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The title of Sarah Ruhl's Tony-nominated 2009 comedy is certainly attention-getting: "In the Next Room, or the vibrator play."
Flock Theatre Artistic Director Derron Wood says, though, that the title is really the most risque thing about it. The play itself deals "with a frank conversation of gender and sexuality," he says.
Wood is directing Flock's production of "In the Next Room, or the vibrator play," which starts its run Friday at the Shaw Mansion in New London.
"In the Next Room, or the vibrator play" - which was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama - concerns a doctor in the 1880s who treats women for "hysteria" by using a vibrator. That was an actual phenomenon that Ruhl learned about when a friend gave her the scholarly text "The Technology of Orgasm."
The dramatist has said she wasn't interested in sensationalism but rather issues of intimacy and marriage and the relationship between bodies and minds.
Wood says the play "looks at this one particular time period where there was no sexual education. Women were still considered property of their husbands."
The bulk of people were still ignorant about their own bodies, he says. This was a time when husbands and wives who had children together might never have seen each other naked. No one discussed breast milk; when the subject comes up in mixed company in the play, the women are quick to apologize.
"They had no idea what an orgasm was, let alone that this was something that could be - to quote the play - achieved through relationships with their husbands," Wood says. "So I think as we look at it from a very modern perspective, that's where a lot of the humor comes from. It's a very, very funny play."
The delicate turn-of-the-century vernacular contributes to the humor of the piece. too. Ruhl event puts asterisks next to dialogue that comes from direct quotes in time-period texts.
"In the New Room" isn't focused solely on the doctor but on his wife and one of his married patients, both of whom are sexually frustrated.
In addition to female sexuality, "In the Next Room" explores issues of religion and motherhood. In one scene, a nursing mother asks if mothers aren't more like Jesus, since they are giving up their bodies to nourish their children.
"In the Next Room" deals, too, with the dawn of electricity, a time when the world was going through a huge transition. Wood compares the impact of that transition to that of a more recent technological advance: the advent of the Internet.
At one point, he says, a character speaks about never having to carry a candle again, saying, " ... to blow out a candle - how beautiful! With one's own breath, to extinguish light! Do you think our children's children will be less solemn? A flick of a finger, and all is lit. A flick of the finger, and all is dark. On, off, on, off. We can change our minds a dozen times a second. On, off, on, off. We shall be like gods."
"In the Next Room, or the vibrator play," Friday-March 2, Shaw Mansion, 11 Blinman St., New London; 7 p.m. Fri. and Sat., 2 p.m. Sun.; $35, $25 seniors, students military; preview prices of $30, $20 for this weekend; (860) 443-3119.
Here's how Flock Theatre came upon the idea of staging "In the Next Room, or the vibrator play" at the Shaw Mansion. Derron Wood was brainstorming with actress Anne Flammang about shows for Flock's upcoming season. Wood wanted to find another play for the 1756 Shaw Mansion, the historic building where Flock has previously staged such era-appropriate works as "Pride and Prejudice" in the mansion's parlor.
Flammang suggested "In the Next Room, or the vibrator play." When Wood learned the play was set in a home doctor's office at the turn of the century, he figured it would be perfect for the Shaw Mansion - which was a home doctor's office around that same time. The Shaw doctor's office was in what we would consider the basement, complete with a separate entrance, and he lived in the house upstairs.
Then, Wood says, "reading (the play) through, we could not stop laughing. I thought, 'This will be great for the Valentine's Day type of event where it's a great comedy, perfect for that location, and just a lot of fun to do."