Emotional outbursts? Nervousness? Like to read too much? Sleepless nights? Full of desire? These are just a few of the “symptoms” that could get a woman diagnosed with the catch-all diagnosis of “female hysteria” for centuries. Thanks to science, we now know female hysteria is not even real, just a made-up term for a smattering of mental illnesses and, frankly, fairly normal behavior that was socially unseemly for women at the time.
This faux malady and its potential cure takes center stage this weekend at AthensWest Theatre Company’s final installment in its “Sweet Season” of comedies, with a production of “In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play” by Sarah Ruhl.
The play chronicles the plight of women in Victorian America who are seeking a cure for hysteria in the form of a new treatment by Dr. Givens, who believes he has found an electrifying “cure” for the mysteriously prevalent ailment. Taking advantage of the dawning age of electricity, Givens treats his patients using an early prototype of the vibrator to give them something most of them have never encountered: an orgasm. Ironically, Givens sees his treatment as completely clinical and divorced from love and intimacy, an emotional chasm that impacts his wife, Catherine, who longs for more passion in their marriage.
When you hear about it, you think salacious and you watch it, and it’s really just this beautiful story about women finding themselves and thinking for themselves.
Natalie Bird, actor
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Sabrina Daldry, played by Cincinnati actress Natalie Bird, is the first of Givens’ patients the audience sees in the show.
“Any woman who was unhappy was just described as hysterical,” Bird says of the historical context. “It can be anything from being moody to having a severe mental disorder. They just lumped it all in as hysteria.”
Bird’s character has been diagnosed as hysterical, but what does that mean in her case?
“She cries at odd moments, she’s inconsolable, she hasn’t had children yet, she’s moody — she’s human,” Bird says.
The title of the play may sound titillating, but Bird and others emphasize that the human story of the characters’ self-discovery via the “treatment” is the appeal of the show.
“When you hear about it, you think salacious, and you watch it, and it’s really just this beautiful story about women finding themselves and thinking for themselves,” Bird says.
While most of the patients Givens treats are female, Ruhl includes the treatment of one male patient via a special vibrator called the Chattanooga vibrator designed specifically for men. Audiences can expect to see replicas of both male and female vibrators on stage, as well as patients receiving their “treatments,” but these scenes are “tastefully done” according to Mark Mozingo, who plays Leo Irving, a lovelorn English artist who is the show’s only male patient.
“I think everyone is a little surprised that there is a male patient, and he is treated by a different device,” Mozingo says.
“Male hysteria was not as documented because in some circles it was looked down on. But of course we know that mental illness does not pick a gender.”
My favorite thing about theater is its capacity to surprise and to change minds and change people’s hearts with ideas, and this is a play that does that in spades.
Bo List, AthensWest Theatre Company artistic director
Artistic director Bo List is quick to point out that this is not a show about sex, but about intimacy and connection.
“You think it’s one thing and it’s another,” List says. “It’s a beautiful script and it’s funny and it’s touching and it’s honest.
“My favorite thing about theater is its capacity to surprise and to change minds and change people’s hearts with ideas, and this is a play that does that in spades.”
Although the strict gender roles of the Victorian era and its period dress may seem foreign to modern sensibilities, List notes that there are interesting parallels between now and then.
“It encapsulates an era that is hard to understand,” List says. “There were lots of advances being made. I think it was a time, like today, when our intelligence is greater than our wisdom.”
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
If you go
“In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play”
What: AthensWest Theatre Company’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s play.
When: 8 p.m. April 14, 15, 20-22, 27-29; 2 p.m. April 23, 30.
Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Tickets: $25 general public, $20 seniors, military, students.