Rapture, Blister, Burn
A Play by Gina Gionfriddo
The Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA
The Virginia Wimberly Theater
527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA 02116
Saturday, June 22, 2013 Matinee, show closes June 30
Running time 2 hr, 20 minutes with one ten minute intermission
Never mind there’s no new ground broken in this slick production. The cast on stage is having fun delivering the goods. The sets are clever and the scenes involving changes in location are seamlessly integrated during the two-act play.
Catherine Croll (Kate Shindle), published author ("The Politics of Pornography: The Rise Of Degradation As Entertainment") and a familiar face on Dr. Phil, has returned to her New England small college hometown to care for her mother, Alice Croll (Nancy E. Carroll). In the first scene, she’s having beers in the back yard of her former grad school-drinking buddy Gwen Harper (Annie McNamara) and her husband Don (Timothy John Smith), an administrative dean at the college. And oh, Don was Catherine’s boyfriend before she left town to pursue her career.Gwen has forsaken drinking to keep her family of one pre teen and one teenager (who are not part of the cast) together and to charge her smart but pot smoking, porn-addicted husband with enough momentum to keep his job
In short order, Gwen’s college age babysitter Avery Willard (Shannon Esper) shows up. When Catherine offers a summer school class on Feminism, the only two who sign up are, you guessed it, Gwen and Avery. Just about everything the well read and opinionated Avery says lights a fuse that unsettles Catherine and Gwen’s long held beliefs about the paths they’ve chosen.
Kate Shindle, Nancy E. Carroll, and Shannon Esper in “Rapture, Blister, Burn.” (Photo courtesy of Boston Globe, T Charles Erickson)
A lingering question that surfaces during the first three quarters of the two hour twenty minute two act play: Catherine recently made a drunken phone call to Gwen, can’t remember the details, but believes she exposed herself emotionally by questioning whether she’s made the right choice by putting professional achievement ahead of home and hearth. The offer she made while being blitzed finally comes to light midway through the second act. The result answers one of the central questions on playwright Gina Gionfriddo's mind.
This is no Saturday Night Live sketch. Heavy ideas spawned from the works of Betty Friedan, Phyllis Schlafly, and John-Jacques Rousseau are tossed around like a beach ball in the bleachers of a day game in Fenway Park. The repartee is smart, fast, and furious. People I know don’t rattle off references quoting seminal authors like this but that’s why I like to go to the theater. It’s stimulating to hear the ideas flung about in service of the story. Theater is storyville, after all.
Forty somethings Catherine and Gwen, and twenty-one year old Avery have vastly different ideas about marriage, love, sex, relationships, and careers. At times I wish I had an instant replay button to digest their spirited, scholarly dialogue. Then there’s Catherine’s widowed mother Alice. Luminously pithy, she’s outlived her husband and updated much of her old school upbringing about marriage. She delivers her insights into what makes Catherine and Gwen tick with droll one-liners as dry as the martinis she serves every day at 5 PM.
The hidden gem in the play and the fulcrum around which the play revolves is Avery. She knows nothing about the gender wars of the 1960s and 1970s. She’s by turns smart, intuitively counter cultural, invincible, vulnerable, and fearless. Her brutally candid observations about Gwen and Catherine are delivered with an analytic detachment that takes the sting out of their barbs. She’s sort of a one-woman, antic Greek chorus who exposes the fault lines in the choices Catherine and Gwen have made in their lives.
Witnessing the interchanges between Avery, Catherine, Gwen and Catherine’s mother Alice is like an intergenerational synopsis of women’s role in America’s white bread, middle-class society. Playwright Gina Gionfriddo dishes it all up to us with enough humor to keep vitriol at bay. There’s plenty of laughter from the audience, laughter I expect from many who’ve had to live through the same life-altering choices as Catherine, Gwen and Alice.
Relational kryptonite has no shelf life. Avery, despite her blasé attitude toward “hooking up,” is vulnerable to being rejected. She’s resilient and young enough to make changes on the fly. What might have been millstones for Catherine or Gwen are helium balloons for Avery, who finds a way to move on without feeling paralyzed by self-doubt.
Judging by the amount of gray-streaked hair, a good chunk of the crowd actually lived through much of the period in which the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 was passed, a victory for the feminism movement. Today’s matinee audience is largely eligible for the AARP membership but peppered with enough 20-40-ish spectators to balance the ages of the cast on stage. Several pods of grand-parents and parents with their teenage/college age kids in the audience match the generations on stage. Pretty cool since the dialogue on stage, especially from college kid Avery, is unabashedly laced with most of the seven words George Carlin gleefully claimed were taboo on TV.
The chemistry between actors is just right. Gwen’s facial
mannerisms say volumes. Alice’s timing is perfect. The complex strands that motivate Catherine are
peeled back scene by scene. John’s professional and
personal inertia is well pitched. His addiction to pornography helps playwright
Gionfriddo flesh out (sorry) it’s effect on the way men and women relate to one another. Every character is flawed and very human. We can see both the unseemly aspects of
ourselves we’d rather keep buried and our more noble selves up there on stage
in all of them, particularly Catherine.
The arc of the play comes into focus as we learn what Catherine said to Gwen in the drunken conversation referred to in the first scenes. It is acted out with unanticipated results. It reminds us, as if we needed reminding, that life is messy and complicated with a great expanse of grey between the absolutes of black and white.
Let’s just say that the grass isn’t always greener in another woman’s pasture. Let’s also say that all’s well that ends well and that the conclusion, while wrapped up a little too tidily, is satisfying. We may not be able to change our pasts, but we can turn the page on it and transform a sense of regret into an opportunity for reformation.