With ‘Vibrator,’ an exploration of intimacy

“Vibrator” explores two couple’s problems with intimacy in the late 19th century.
“Vibrator” explores two couple’s problems with intimacy in the late 19th century. Photo by Samantha Gardner.

This Wednesday night, the Yale Dramatic Association will premiere its spring semester mainstage production, “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play).”

Directed by Steve Kaliski, produced by Jonathan Lian ’15 and written by the well-known playwright Sarah Ruhl, a lecturer at the School of Drama and Theater Studies Department who has debuted other plays at the Yale Repertory Theatre, “The Vibrator Play” tells the story of the Givings and Daldry couples, who are burdened by boring sex lives. Kaliski said the Pulitzer-finalist play explores the “search for the language of intimacy” within the restrictive social norms of 1880s New England, while others involved in the show noted the relevancy of the play’s sexual themes to Yale students.

Lian said that while “The Vibrator Play” has been on the Dramat’s shortlist for the past three years, the Dramat decided to stage the play this year due to Ruhl’s increasing popularity and relatively new teaching position. As the semester’s mainstage production, “The Vibrator Play” is the work of both professionals — including the lighting, set, costume and sound designers, as well as Kaliski — and students. The New York-based director noted that, for the professionals, the mainstage show is an opportunity for teaching and “less about things working exactly as they are supposed to.”

Lian said that it has been “a creative exercise” for the team to make their vision work with the resources they have. Because the Yale Rep, where the play will be staged, does not have the same extensive rigging system as the University Theatre, the team has had to find other ways to introduce movement into the show using other production elements like the sets. He added that this approach is reflective of the entire play: “creativity comes from constraint.”

At the beginning of the show, both couples find that they are unable to communicate fully their passions and desires. Dr. Givings, played by Tim Creavin ’15, is a doctor who treats female “hysteria” by using vibrators — at this point in the storyline, none of the characters realize that the instrument can be used for sexual purposes. Kaliski said the play’s essence is very much about the “or” in the title.

“It’s about going from the euphemism of ‘In the Next Room’ to a place that’s blunt and clear — ‘The Vibrator Play,’” Kaliski said.

Sabrina Daldry, played by Marina Horiates ’15, is married to a husband many years older who is unwilling to join her search for the vocabulary of intimacy. Horiates said the characters struggle with communicating the sexual concepts and emotions they do not understand.

Mrs. Givings, played by Calista Small ’14, said the play’s female characters are trying to use the vocabulary available to them in the late 1800s to its fullest.

“They didn’t have words to express female sexual pleasure and orgasm,” Small said.

Creavin added that playing characters with such a different mindset poses a challenge for the actors. In trying to reflect the socially constrained nature of the time period, he said he has found it difficult to learn how to portray someone afraid of self-expression. Kaliski said that while it is easy for 21st-century actors to discuss feelings, it is “dangerous” for them to do so in rehearsal. To combat this, he said he encourages actors to act “without thinking about it.”

“[Talking about feelings] imposes a 21st-century sensibility on characters who didn’t know how to talk,” Kaliski said.

While the majority of the play’s characters struggle with expressing themselves, Leo Irving, a male artist who receives the vibrator treatment and is played by Paul Hinkes ’15, represents the opposite side of the spectrum — he has sex with multiple people and seems not to understand the meaning of the word ‘secret.’ Hinkes said his character may be more immediately relatable to the play’s 21st century audience, especially one comprised of mostly college students who are used to open communication about sex. Still, he said he is “excited” how the play’s spectrum of characters, from those unable to communicate to those who can’t keep anything to themselves, sparks a discussion about the role sex should play in romantic relationships.

Lian, the show’s producer, added that the play is especially pertinent to a college population because college students are still exploring the meaning of love.

“In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)” will run from April 3 to 6 at the Yale Rep.

Correction: April 4

A previous version of this article mistakenly identified Jonathan Lian ’15 as one of the show’s directors. In fact, Lian is the show’s producer. The article also misspelled the name of the Daldry couple, one of the two couples central to the play.

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