The vibrator was originally applied as a medical device rather than a sex toy. Victorian women diagnosed with “hysteria,” a catchall term for any emotional state that men didn’t understand, would visit doctors for therapeutic masturbation sessions to relieve the pressure on their nerves and release “excess fluids.” In an era when female sexuality wasn’t always associated with pleasure, this procedure was viewed as strictly medical and perfectly respectable, and herein lies much of the comedic grist for In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play). (Coincidentally, the subject of the new movie Hysteria.)

This title, now on the marquee at City Lights Theater, suggests a lightweight sex farce. In reality, while the play is erotically charged and uproariously funny, Pulitzer-nominee Sarah Ruhl (The Clean House, Eurydice, Dead Man’s Cell Phone) has crafted something that is also unexpectedly complex and stunningly poignant.

The story concerns Dr. Givings (Jeffrey Bracco), who administers a “pelvic massage” therapy to his “hysterical” patients, including Mrs. Daldry (an effervescent Sarah Moser) and a rare male case, the sensitive artist Leo Irving (Adam Magill). The induced “paroxysm” leaves the patients feeling euphoric and greatly relaxed, but the notion that such a release might occur in the bedroom rather than a doctor’s office seems alien to them.

Victorian prudery is the stuff of legend, but Ruhl understands that it wasn’t monolithic. Her characters aren’t stuffy puritans, but in an age of great strides in science and medicine, they are still ignorant of the most basic human functions. They crave intimacy, but don’t know how to get it. This is shown in Mrs. Daldry’s relationship with the doctor’s assistant Annie (Shannon Warrick), and most of all in Elissa Beth Stebbins’ superb portrayal of Mrs. Givings, which brings great emotional depth to the character’s desire for romance with her distant, clinically minded husband, and her anguish at being unable to feed her child, having instead to hire a wet nurse (Rachel Davidman).

While the scenes of Dr. Givings’ vibrator therapy are the most outrageously funny parts, the scenes shared by the female characters turn out to be the most interesting, with Davidman and Warrick lending a sense of gravitas alongside the passionate performances of Moser and Stebbins. This is an excellent rendition of an excellent play, and the strongest production of City Lights’ season thus far.

In the Next Room
Runs through June 17; $15-$28
City Lights Theater