In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) continues at the Masquer Theatre Thu., March 1, and Fri., March 2, at 7:30 PM and Sat., March 3, and Sun., March 4, at 2 PM. $16.

After the last of many female orgasms sounded through the Masquer Theatre and the house lights came up, an elderly couple seated behind me began to gather their things.

“Well, that was different,” the woman said to the man, and, after a pause, they both laughed gleefully.

We had just watched In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), written by MacArthur Fellowship recipient Sarah Ruhl and produced by the University of Montana School of Theatre & Dance.

As the title parenthetically prepares you for, the play is about the invention of vibrators and the effect the invention has on one man’s medical practice and the people (mostly women) around him. It takes place in the 1880s, at the dawn of the age of electricity, a solid 40 years before women could vote and 80 years before the sexual revolution.

A self-described feminist and female-orgasm haver who often writes about sex, I assumed I was unshakably prepared for whatever Ruhl had in store, even after spotting the warning on the playbill that I was about to witness adult themes and nudity. But as the first minutes of the play unfolded, I realized I was about to confront some of my remaining deep-seated discomforts about female sexuality and desire.

In the first scene, Sabrina Daldry is ushered first into the doctor’s living room and then into the adjoining medical office, suffering from “hysteria” — a feminine disease that can, the doctor explained, be treated with his new electric vibrator in just a few minutes. Daldry then removes most of her seemingly dozens of layers of 1880s clothing (a huge percentage of this play is dedicated to the theme of dressing and undressing), gets on the examination table and experiences her first orgasm. It is confusing, awakening and overwhelming for her, while for the audience, it’s surprisingly shocking, awkward and, thanks to Ruhl’s extremely sharp writing, filled with humanity and humor.

vibrator

The latest production by UM’s School of Theatre & Dance explores the early history of the vibrator.

Under either poor direction or acting, the story could be disastrous, embarrassing and even regressive. But director John Kenneth DeBoer and a talented cast of seven give the play the thoughtfulness and playfulness it needs and deserves (with standouts Anne Sacry playing the doctor’s wife, Catherine Givings, and Kamlin Cox playing a male hysteric artist, Leo Irving). As the characters navigate issues of sex, attraction, femaleness, gender roles, anxiety, loneliness, motherhood and, literally, electricity, we see how far we have come today — and yet how some issues cling to us in present times almost unchanged. We see their ignorance of sex and sexuality and the female body, but also our own blind spots: If we were truly comfortable with the play’s subjects, why is it so shocking each time a woman in the play removes her corset and spreads her legs?

In the Next Room is also performed in the round, with a central stage. The effect isn’t just that the two rooms of the story take on a special, distinct dichotomy, it’s also that you watch other audience members watching the play. At one point, as Leo Irving is being treated for his male hysteria via anal vibrator, I caught one woman watching me watch the play, both of us experiencing the mix of delight and discomfort that the play trades so heavily in. It brings an almost voyeuristic feeling to it, of observing and being observed, along with the feeling that while the audience knows so much more than the characters, we, too, still consider sex toy talk — and women’s pleasure — taboo.

Yep: The play sure is different. It’s also emotional, smart, funny, heartbreaking and daring. I left feeling both more understanding and more understood. Like the very best plays, it challenges you while making your heart grow just a little bit bigger.

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