WARNING: THIS PLAY MAY CAUSE PLEASURABLE SENSATIONS

 

 
 In the Next Room or the vibrator play was a huge hit when it opened in Broadway in 2009. It was nominated for both the Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize and pretty much ensured the success of its author, Sarah Ruhl. Not that American playwright, Ruhl, is not already quite well known – she is the author of acclaimed plays such as The Clean House, Dead Man’s Cell Phone and Passion Play: A Cycle.  She has already earned a MacArthur Fellowship, the Helen Merrill Award, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, a Whiting Writers’ Award and  a PEN/pels Award for Drama.
 
In the Next Room or the vibrator play is set in the 19th century and tells the tale of a doctor who specialises in treating women for ‘hysteria’. His latest treatment involves an extraordinary  new fangled invention know as ‘the vibrator’ with which he has, apparently, achieved remarkable results. After birthing their child, his wife begins to feel desperately lonely, and she befriends two of her husband’s patients who are undergoing ‘treatment.’ The next is best left to be uncovered in the theatre but suffice it to say the doctors ‘treatment’ opens many doors for these women which were hitherto closed to them…
 
The play is in effect a homage toward the understanding of female sexuality but is set in a very different time frame to our present liberated sensibilities. Ruhl discusses how important it was to discover some historical accuracy within her work: " The play is set in the 19th century, so there are some details I want to get right, at least suggestively. When I’m writing the play, I want to have a firm sense of where and how these characters might have lived. But I’m a contemporary woman writing with subsequent knowledge that informs my view of the period. In terms of the sexuality, I was aiming less for self-consciousness than for a kind of innocence. In some ways, people then were innocent of sexuality compared to the biological knowledge we’ve acquired about the subject since. I didn’t want the play to be too knowing."
 
Writing about this particular time frame was no hardship for Ruhl as she is also a fan of 19th century fiction.  "I read Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte as a child, when I was sick in bed," she says. "I grew up with a living sense of literary history. I studied it later at Brown. While I was there I was looking at work by George Eliot and Dickens that featured actresses. I wanted to write my thesis on that subject. So I asked [playwright] Paula Vogel to be my thesis advisor. She said, "No, but I will be your advisor if you write a play." So that’s what I did. Working on that subject as a play was liberating."
 
The plays’ title has also been the subject of some debate regarding its genesis. Ruhl sets the record straight: "For a long time, I used The Vibrator Play as a working title. I was never satisfied with it; it seemed so utilitarian. At some point while working on the play’s production earlier this year at Berkeley Rep, I told myself: The Vibrator Play is too facile. The play is not a sex farce about vibrators. It’s about wet nurses; it’s about the body. It’s misleading to say it’s purely about the object. So I changed the title to In The Next Room, with or the vibrator play as the subtitle. I know that some people will still refer to the play by its subtitle. Subtitles are very 19th-century; a lot of great novels from that period have them."
 
Sarah Ruhl could very well be the hottest young playwright in America at present but how does she deal with the critics or audience responses: "I listen to how the audience responds to the play, absolutely. I’m very interested in that. But I’m not terribly interested in things like talkbacks. I don’t think of the audience strictly as a focus group. Theater has been influenced by the processes of TV and film, but I hope it doesn’t become purely a function of focus-group marketing. I think we want singular positions from artists. We crave their individuality."
 
In the Next Room or the vibrator play is being directed by Pamela Rabe who says of the work: "I think what drew me to this play, and it’s a beautiful play, is that it toes a very fine line between comedy, beauty and the potential for imminent tragedy. It’s got great drama and a little bit of magic."
 
In the Next Room or the vibrator play will play at The MTC Theatre, Sumner  7 April to 14 May 2011 Tickets: From $61.10 ($30 Under 30s) Booking details: The MTC Theatre Box Office 03 8688 0800 or mtc.com.au
 

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