By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Nov 11, 2010 at 9:05 AM

The things they don't tell us in history books.

For example, long before Hugh Hefner chose his first Playmate and The Pill changed sexual mores, members of the very proper and very male medical establishment had a startling therapy for curing a great variety of physical and behavioral problems in women. They manipulated the female genitalia to induce a "paroxysm," as it was called. The arrival of electricity in doctors' offices in the 1880s led to the invention of a buzzing contraption that did the job without the touch of a human hand.

This is absolutely true. As Casey Stengel used to say, in a very different context, "you can look it up."

Serious dramatist Sarah Ruhl, whose credits include a retelling of the Orpheus myth, titled "Eurydice," seized upon this nugget of bizarre medical history for her thoughtful comedy "In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)." The show was produced on Broadway a year ago, and Madison's Forward Theater Company opened an entertaining production of it last weekend.

"In the Next Room" is not sexy, salacious or prurient. It is amusing, gently feminist and really about an ageless relationship problem -- one half of a couple being too busy and preoccupied to pay adequate attention to the other half. The play is also sprawling, rambunctious and messy.

A gynecologist's Victorian era home near New York City serves as the setting for "In the Next Room." Dr. Givings and a midwife he employs treat patients in an "operating theater" that shares a wall with the house's parlor.

We see both rooms and the doctor's restless young wife Catherine, who is often in the parlor. She is stewing over her husband's chilly and distant demeanor and her inability to provide adequate milk for the newborn she is attempting to nurse. Catherine feels like an overlooked wife and a failed mother.

The unsatisfying relationship is a reflection of Dr. Givings' self-image as a stalwart man of science, well-intentioned but always sterilized against emotion and feelings. The good doctor antiseptically brings patients suffering from the catch-all diagnosis of "hysteria" to chaste orgasm while Catherine listens in the next room to their moans of gratification.

The contrast between 21st century and Victorian age sexuality sparks the play's humor. When Dr. Givings was practicing medicine, it was believed women did not find pleasure in sex.

Their attachment to the electronic vibrator becomes a sly joke between them and us. A first act scene of females at play while the doctor is away is deliciously fun.

Catherine's desire to feel loved as a wife and needed as a mother is surrounded by other issues. She initially objects to her husband's decision to hire a black woman as wet nurse, adding a racial dimension that is not fully explored. The character is too much of a stereotype.

An odd and frustrated male artist is added to the mix when he becomes one of the rare men to seek treatment for hysteria. You will have to see the show to know how Dr. Givings deals with that. It's unclear whether the introduction of the character into the story is an attempt to say something about art or is simply spice for the plot.

The success of "In the Next Room" is reliant on the actress who plays Catherine. The young woman is prone to blurting out the first thing that comes into her mind, often resulting in awkward moments. On the surface, she appears to be her husband's intellectual inferior.

But if Catherine is portrayed as a shallow airhead, we lose interest in her, and "In the Next Room" becomes just a thin and overwritten comedy. The Forward Theater production, directed by co-founder Jennifer Uphoff Gray, deftly avoids that with Jessica Bess Lanius in the role.

Lanius contributes a beautifully shaded and layered performance that allows us to view Catherine through a prism. We observe the effortless femininity that must have attracted her husband, the anguish and vulnerability she feels from her life situation, and the flashes of a lively spirit that eventually saves her and her marriage.

Although some of her comments suggest there is no edit filter between her brain and her mouth, Lanius' Catherine is no dummy. Furthermore, we identify with and root for her.

Dr. Givings must be believable in his distracted scientific geekiness, but he cannot be a jerk. Mark Ulrich perfectly fits that description.

The rest of the able cast consists of Karen Moeller, Leia Espericueta, Ryan Schabach, Marti Gobel and Richard Ganoung.

"In the Next Room" has its flaws, but we need ambitious and adventurous theater pieces that pull on the leash. A diet of only well-made little plays is boring and regressive.

Special kudos go to the Forward Theater Company for opening its second season with the Midwest premiere of Ruhl's comedy. In its first year, the group produced the Midwest premiere of Christopher Durang's "Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them," another off-center piece by a noteworthy playwright.

Forward is clearly not picking only safe and familiar titles when selecting the plays it mounts, and it is being rewarded with box office success. The company finished its inaugural season in the black and is enjoying healthy subscription and individual ticket sales for this year.

Congratulations to these fine theater pros, and may you be a shining example to other stage troupes tempted to choose only vanilla when making programing decisions.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.