The young woman enters the physician's office and sits down.
She tells the good doctor that she's having trouble sleeping. She's nervous, and hasn't been very hungry as of late. The doctor suggests a new treatment. The woman reclines, and using his hands, the doctor manually brings her to orgasm.
This isn't the setup to some sophomoric porno flick. "Pelvic massage" long was the common treatment for hysteria, an archaic, catchall term for a wide range of symptoms that were diagnosed predominantly in women. Victorian-era doctors used their hands, jets of water and early electric vibrators to stimulate better health in patients.
It's this interesting practice that Sarah Ruhl highlights in her play "In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)," performed by Cadence Theatre Company.
"Hysteria was basically classified as anything that showed weakness in women," says Laine Satterfield, who portrays a patient in the show. While the play's subject matter might be titillating, Satterfield says that "Next Room" is a love story at heart.
"On the outside, the play appears to be a pretty straightforward drawing-room comedy, but there's a lot of meat to it," says Larry Cook, who plays a doctor treating hysteria. The show is a mixture of farce and drama, he says, and its treatment of women in the Victorian era parallels many political issues regarding women's bodies today. Both actors praise Ruhl's script and her ability to make the heightened formal speech of the era accessible to contemporary audiences.
Producing a play set in the 1880s presented some unusual challenges, says Anna Johnson, Cadence's artistic and managing director. Aside from nailing down the speech of the period, every woman in the show wears a corset. The company also had to find machinery that could double for an antiquated vibrator.
"Most of these machines look like they're power tools," Johnson says, joking. While searching for an object that could serve as a believable replica, the production crew struck gold at a shop in Petersburg: an actual vibrator of the period. Cadence purchased the machine for $15 and incorporated it into the set.
Next up for Cadence is Martin McDonagh's thrilling "The Pillowman," which opens Oct. 19. The play follows the interrogation of a writer about a series of gruesome crimes that increasingly resemble his fictional tales.
"That piece is particularly well-loved in the theater community," Johnson says. "We've had almost every man in town audition for the show."
As for "In the Next Room," the company promises a surprise at the climax.
"It's really about connecting people to what they want in life and what their passions are," Satterfield says. "It's a beautiful mix of action and words. Audiences should prepare to be moved." S
Cadence Theatre Company's "In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)" runs through Sept. 8 at Theatre Gym at Virginia Rep, 114 W. Broad St. The show contains nudity and sexual content. $26; $19 for subscribers. Call 282-2620 or visit cadencetheatre.org.