Paroxysms, circa 1880s, abound at the Pear

By Ande Jacobson

According to a handy, modern medical dictionary, a paroxysm is defined as:

  1. a sudden violent attack, especially a spasm or convulsion, or
  2. the abrupt worsening of symptoms or recurrence of disease.

In a broad sense, the first definition fits the 1880s meaning in terms of all outward appearances, but that’s not exactly what they meant by the word in those days – at least as it’s used in Sarah Ruhl’s play, In the Next Room or the vibrator play, currently on stage at the Pear Theatre. This work was inspired by Rachel P. Maines‘ research. Maines specializes in the history of technology and accidently discovered an odd connection between medical practice of late 19th century and technological advances in the use of electricity based on ads from numerous American women’s magazines from the era. The new gadget of the time was the precursor to the modern vibrator, and it was used to treat the nebulous, mostly female malady known as “hysteria” through “manipulation of the uterus” resulting in “paroxysms” that were supposed to fix the imbalance. Looking back from the present, it seems far more likely that the symptoms this 19th century device was supposed to treat resulted from taboos surrounding intimacy, ignorance, fiendish fashion norms, gender discrimination, and an extremely patriarchal society.

Although Ruhl’s play is set in New York in the 1880s at the dawn of the application of Thomas Edison’s discovery, the themes are just as relevant today. While the apparatuses provide some humorous context, they are really devices (both physical and theatrical) to focus exploration of relationships and the various physical manifestations that can arise when those relationships fall asunder. The writing is extremely poetic, and although somewhat formal in places, it flows easily though some of the period-specific aspects are rather quaint. At times, those quaint portions of dialogue, like the apparatuses, provide a bit of comic relief.

Caroline Clark directs this tight ensemble, keeping the action moving in multiple “rooms” simultaneously. Rather than freezing the action when focus shifts from one room to another, per the playwright’s intention, the action continues quietly in the background while the dialogue or other verbalizations dictate the primary focus. The focus sometimes shifts abruptly from one room to the other by design.

Ruhl’s cast of characters includes:

  • Dr. Givings (Brad Satterwhite)  a medical doctor who specializes in treating “hysteria” and an inventor who eagerly applies his inventions whenever, and wherever possible. He’s fanatic about the recent discovery of electricity having incorporated its use in his regular household and in his practice.
  • Catherine Givings (April Culver)  the doctor’s lonely wife. Given the doctor’s zeal for his work in “the next room” from which Catherine is excluded, she is starved for attention. She has also recently given birth to their first child, but she’s unable to produce enough milk to feed the infant.
  • Annie (Stephanie Crowley)  the able (and still single) nurse/doctor’s assistant. Annie assists the doctor in his patient treatment and connects with the patients, mostly putting them at ease.
  • Sabrina Daldry (Ellen Dunphy)  a patient suffering from hysteria who seeks treatment from the doctor.
  • Mr. Daldry (Troy Johnson)  Mrs. Daldry’s crass, insensitive husband.
  • Elizabeth (Damaris Divito)  the Daldry’s housekeeper who takes on a new role as wet nurse to the Givings’ baby.
  • Leo Irving (James Lewis)  another of the doctor’s patients. He considers himself an artist and a gentleman, and according to the doctor, though hysteria is rare in men, Irving appears to exhibit a “classic case” after the collapse of his relationship.

Throughout the story, the characters evolve, learning and growing from their interactions. Along the way, many of their inner feelings come to light, whether they want them to or not.

Clark and Norm Beamer are the scenic designers, and their set is perfect for the space. Upstage there are suspended windows looking out onto a winter wonderland. The front door to the house is in the upstage left corner entering into a small foyer next to the door to the doctor’s domain. Upstage right is the doctor’s examination room with an exam table and various electric instruments. There are three hanging electric lights over the exam table, and a desk along the far stage right set wall. The upstage right door goes to an unseen room in the house. Downstage is the living room, and an archway leads off stage right to the unseen nursery. An electric lamp sits on a side table next to the couch, a piano is set in the downstage left portion of the living room, and all of the furnishings are believably period.

Kathleen O’Brien’s costumes are detailed, period appropriate, and exquisite. Since part of the action includes a certain amount of disrobing (though modesty is mostly preserved), all of the layers of clothing of the period are in evidence. Per the playwright’s script notations, part of the concurrent timing of the action is dependent on either dressing or undressing in the exam room whilst the discussion continues in the living room. In this way the layers are sort of time keepers ensuring the pacing and synchronization of the action, assuming of course that the actors have mastered the intricacies of navigating around corsets, bustles, petticoats, and other period-specific clothing impediments.

In addition to her directorial and scenic design roles, Clark is also the sound designer for this production. As written, a number of pieces by composer Jonathan Bell were commissioned for use in the play through a separate license, and these are used. In addition, several period appropriate parlor piano pieces are heard during scene changes. Beyond the music, the sound effects for the various apparatuses used are interesting and well placed both in tone and direction.

Lighting designer Kedar Lawrence weaves a very effective plot between stage lights and electric lights set for period effect. The only inconsistency isn’t in the design but is in the execution of some of the lighting cues with respect to the table lamp. Sometimes the stage action and cues aren’t entirely in sync, though in part, those inconsistencies stem from differences in how various actors manipulate that particular lamp.

Aside from the lamp inconsistencies, the cast is tight and well-rehearsed. Although Satterwhite, Dunphy and Divito all sound formal and somewhat stiff, particularly when their characters are initially introduced, they convey their characters’ inner conflicts and growth well as the story progresses.

Culver and Lewis appear more at ease with their characterizations, in part due to the way they are written. Their characters are misfits in a way. Unlike the others, they know what they want even if they aren’t entirely sure how to get it. Their discussions with one another are more abstract and poetic than with other characters.

There’s some very nice interplay between Culver, Dunphy, and Divito when the three of them inadvertently start comparing notes between the procedures the doctor is performing and their personal lives.

Crowley’s and Johnson’s characters are mostly functional, acting primarily as foils for Satterwhite and Dunphy. Crowley really comes alive when her character pushes the limits of acceptable behavior for the period, and her emotional reaction is a nice contrast to Annie’s more professional demeanor maintained through most of the performance.

The story’s resolution is gratifying, heartfelt, and beautifully staged, particularly given the limitations of the performance space.

This Pear production is an excellent way to begin the 16th season with their new Artistic Director, Elizabeth Kruse Craig, at the helm. In keeping with the season’s theme to invite, unite, and ignite the Pear Theatre and its community, this show does all of that and more. While the language is clean, and the bulk of the action is conducted modestly, sexual overtones run rampant throughout, making the play inappropriate for young audiences.

What:  Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the vibrator play

Where:  Pear Avenue Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View, CA 94043

When:  Continues Thursdays – Sundays through 1 October 2017

See or call (650)254-1148 for tickets or more information.

(Photos courtesy of The Pear)


In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play, by Sarah Ruhl (Samuel French)


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