If Gina Gionfriddo’s “Rapture, Blister, Burn” is a feminist play, it certainly isn’t one that Betty Friedan would endorse. The play, which was considered for a Pulitzer Prize when it debuted in 2012, seems more a refutation of Ms. Friedan’s views than an endorsement of them. Instead, Phyllis Schlafly, hardly a proponent of the women’s liberation movement, is the more quoted, if not admired, historical figure in the two-act play.
Under Shannon Mahoney’s deft direction, and with a fine ensemble cast, the current Capital Stage production of the play is a first-rate audience-pleaser. This production goes for laughs first, and it elicits many of them. Still, much of the conversation after the opening night performance we attended last weekend focused on the play’s message, and, simply stated, it’s a complicated one.
The story concerns the paths that the lives of two women, erstwhile roommates, have taken in the fifteen or so years since they made strikingly different choices. Catherine left what was apparently a significant romantic relationship to pursue a career as a writer. Gwen stepped into the relationship with the guy Kathy left behind and married him. The play takes place at the point that Catherine has returned (from London) having authored two published books on feminism. She has achieved the kind of success that Friedan might have endorsed, having become a celebrity of sorts (a panel member on Bill Maher’s “Real Time” TV show). Her return was prompted by her mother Alice’s heart attack (and the need she felt to be there for Alice).
As the play opens, Gwen and Don are renewing their relationship with Catherine in the couple’s home, where they are parents to a thirteen year old and a three-year old. Gwen is a confirmed “housewife” in the Phyllis Schlafly tradition. Don is the dean at a local community college. Things are awkward from the outset, due to a phone call from Catherine that prompted the get-together. It seems that Catherine said some things that Gwen found strange, although the precise details of the phone call only come to light later.
Over the course of much of the play’s first act, Catherine and Gwen, joined by Alice and Avery, a 21-year old student at Don’s college, engage in a review (led by Catherine) of the development and history of feminism. Much of this part of the play is pedantic (or at least undramatic), with Avery reacting as a hip, if naïve, millennial to the history lesson Catherine provides, and Gwen responding in Schlafly fashion to suggestions that her choice was self-diminishing. As they talk, Alice weighs in with thoughts from an earlier generation, and Catherine grows less convinced that her choice (she is still single and childless at the age of 42) was the right one.
And all the while, Don is the foil for both Catherine and Gwen. Such drama as the play contains (it isn’t “heavy” in this regard) revolves around the way the two women relate to a guy who is a classic under-achiever, a would-be slacker were it not for his position as the dean of a second-rate college. As the women reconsider their choices, Don remains unchanged, as incapable of commitment as he is to self-advancement in a career. In essence, he represents the worst of both women’s choices. One classic line about him underscores his role and the women’s dilemma he represents.
“I am ready and willing to embrace mediocrity and ambivalence,” says Catherine at one point, “you’re just not letting me.”
The Capital Stage production is a lot of fun, even if the post-performance conversations confirmed that it is also provocative and controversial. The cast is uniformly excellent. Each member of the ensemble has star-turn moments. Megan Pearl Smith (Catherine) and Kelley Ogden (Gwen) convey the play’s theme effectively in their self-reflection and in the agonizing reappraisals that ensue. Sam Misner (Don) is alternately funny and pathetic without scene-stealing in either mode. The two surprises, if that is the right word, are Madilyn Cooper (Avery) and Phoebe Moyer (Alice). Together they add immeasurably to the production’s humor while providing no small amount of its gravitas.