Imagine a world with no Internet, no YouTube, no therapists or books willing to discuss what constitutes an orgasm, and think about how you would find out what was happening to you -- or not -- without those sources of information.
It's the 1880s, electricity and the just-invented lightbulb are all the rage, and sexually frustrated women are treated for their "hysteria" by doctors armed with vibrators to release their tensions.
But playwright Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) is more than just a play with a titillating hook. "It's an examination of intimacy and roles between men and women," says Leslie Swackhamer, who is directing the play at Stages Repertory Theatre.
Swackhamer brought in an etiquette book written in the 1860s to help her cast understand the mores of the time. "We were talking about it the other day. The idea of a woman expressing desire and owning it is still very threatening to men, and then the day of that conversation, that whole brouhaha with Rush Limbaugh happened. A woman claiming her right to birth control is labeled a slut. Here we are in 2012 and that's happening. It's so timely."
But Ruhl's play is far from a hardline, ponderous treatise, Swackhamer says. "The thing I love about this play is there's a lot of depth to it, but it's also delightful and funny and beautiful."
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Swackhamer, who in an earlier incarnation was a lawyer but decided she loved the theater far more, specializes in new plays and although this one isn't new-new, it's still newish to a lot of audiences, she says. Besides which, she thinks "Sarah Ruhl is one of the most interesting, exciting playwrights working today," and this is the first time she's gotten to direct a play written by a winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. Swackhamer is the executive director of that prize, awarded to outstanding female playwrights.
She was glad to do this at Stages, she says, because the theater is so intimate and she knows "all of the production values the play demands will be served. It's set in the Victorian period very shortly after the invention of the electric lightbulb. She also applauds the amount of acting talent available in Houston. "My cast is amazing." She uses the same term to describe the play.
"It's a play of ideas, it's a play of language and it's a play of heart."
In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) previews March 14 and 15, opens March 16 and runs through April 8 at Stages Repertory Theatre. For information, call 713.527.0123 or go to stagestheatre.com.