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Sarah Ruhl goes beyond the buzz of the vibrator Add to ...

When she was writing In the Next Room at a desk in her daughter’s bedroom, Sarah Ruhl never expected that the play would be her Broadway breakthrough – in fact, she figured it would have very limited appeal.

“I had no notion that it would have any commercial value, because I thought no one would want to see a play with vibrators,” the American playwright says, over the phone from her New York apartment.

The stimulating subject matter of Ruhl’s comedy set in Victorian-era New York is not exactly hidden away from prospective patrons, however – indeed, the device gets name-dropped in the play’s full title, In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play.

But despite the vibrators – or perhaps because of them – it has become one of the American playwright’s most buzzed-about works, nominated for a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize.

This week, In the Next Room gets its Canadian premiere directed by Richard Rose at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre in a production that will then travel to the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in November.

Ruhl, 37, came up with the play’s premise after reading Cornell University professor Rachel Maines’s book The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction.

It was in that popular history that she learned the sex toy’s little-known past life as a medical device – which is, coincidentally, fodder for the upcoming film Hysteria starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. “I had no idea that doctors used vibrators to treat women with ‘hysteria’,” says Ruhl. “Nor did I know that before the advent of the vibrator they used the manual treatment – which was completely shocking to me!”

In The Next Room imagines the home office of just one such physician in the 1880s. Doctor Givings conducts experimental therapy with his new electrical-massage machine, while his neglected wife Catherine listens curiously to the cries of his patients one room over.

“I’ve always been interested in what lies underneath the veneer of the 19th-century novel, what’s underneath the manners or what’s in the proverbial next room,” says Ruhl, who was the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2006. “You don’t hear much about prostitutes or bathrooms or vibrators.”

What might seem a departure for followers of Ruhl’s career is less the subject of In the Next Room, however, than the style. With its straightforward setting and historical costumes, it might at first glance be mistaken for a revival of a Victorian drawing-room play. “I wanted the illusion or the appearance of a real drawing-room play, so the more subversive content kind of snuck in – so that the audience thought they were in really familiar territory and suddenly a doctor whips out a vibrator,” says Ruhl.

Compared to many of her other plays, In the Next Room is quite naturalistic as well. That is to say that none of the characters turn into an almond as they do in Melancholy Play, nor are there any talking stones as in Eurydice – to name two of her shows that have previously been produced in Toronto.

While her flair for the fantastic has resulted in a variety of labels from magical realist to surreal, Ruhl instead points to Shakespeare’s romances as dramatic inspiration. “What I find puzzling, I suppose, about the surreal being cordoned off is that Shakespeare’s such a canonical writer – and he was so wild and wooly,” she says. “Statues coming to life, people turning into asses – I mean talk about magic… I see it as being very much in the tradition of English drama that things can transform.”

As it turns out, Ruhl’s exposure to the works of William Shakespeare in performance comes from trips the Chicago native took annually to Ontario’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival with her mother from Grade 3 up until high school.

“Once they took us backstage and showed us the boat from The Tempest – I’ll never forget it,” Ruhl says. “We made our pilgrimage every year – it was really important to my mom.… She would always talk about Brian Bedford and sigh.”

Ruhl hasn’t been back to Stratford in recent years – but, in fact, she hasn’t been very much of anywhere. She currently has three young children: a five-year-old daughter and 19-month-old twins. (She has to interrupt our phone interview briefly to go tend to one of them crying in the next room.) “I would so love to see this production [in Toronto]” says Ruhl with a sigh. “I’m so stuck because of my copious amounts of breeding I’ve been doing.”

In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play runs at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre until Oct. 23.

 

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