Until about a hundred years ago, many doctors believed that sexual release cured a myriad of psychological and perhaps physical problems, usually in women but occasionally in men. Depression, anxiety, nervousness and other manifestations of ill health would vanish if a "paroxysm" - what we'd call an orgasm today - could be induced, especially for the first time, in a patient. (I can testify that high school boys still believed this in the 1970s and, I would guess, do so today.)
That's the starting point of Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)," which Actor's Theatre of Charlotte is doing as part of its love affair with her. (It produced "The Clean House" in 2007 and "Dead Man's Cell Phone" last season.) Naughty humor makes us smile, but director Ann Marie Costa knows the organ Ruhl wants to stimulate is the brain.
Catherine Givings (Hanley Smith) hangs in a balance poised evenly between joy and misery in the newly electrified world of the 1880s. (Though characters speak of a recently electrocuted elephant, which happened in 1903.)
Catherine blooms at the thought of her new baby but wilts because she must hire a nurse (Tanya McClellan) to supplement her own thin breast milk. She loves her older husband, a physician specializing in "sexual hysteria" (Christian Casper), but her personality remains a mystery he's ill-equipped to solve. She's drawn to a cavalier artist who studied in Italy (Catori Swann) and professes to be a romantic, yet she's repelled by his failure to understand women, too.
Most of all, she pities patients such as Sabrina Daldry (Lauren Dortch Crozier), who enter her husband's care in a wretched state, then envies them after sexual stimulation revitalizes their lives.
Catherine is the only character who really changes in this story, evolving from a well-meaning but foolish chatterbox into a woman who knows what she needs to be whole - and, in a final magic moment, liberates herself and her husband from convention to get it. They briefly leave behind Chip Decker's well-detailed set for an enveloping snowscape, catching fire emotionally and sexually amid the cold.
Smith and Swann (who has a conventionally chauvinistic role) both make debuts alongside ATC regulars and energize the show. She especially wins our sympathy by reminding us how high the barriers can be between lovers, but how easily those can be vaulted with compassion.