Isms are sticky wickets. However useful your favorite ism may be as a belief system and a way of seeing, individual and societal realities are far too messy ever to be fully accounted for by it. Feminism is no different.
Not that feminism is monadic. That’s the philosophical jumping-off point for Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn, a story about how maybe you really can’t have it all, baby, but you’re an empowered being nonetheless. The first characters we’re introduced to are not dramatis personae, but Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly, whose opposing viewpoints framed much of the discourse on second-wave feminism. As we are told via piped-in, Wikipedia-like narrative just after the lights go down, while Friedan championed the idea that women had just as much right and ability as men to create a career path and need not define themselves as mothers and homemakers, Schlafly advocated the maintenance of traditional gender roles.
After this prologue begins the play proper, with the “family or career” question front and center. Back in grad school Catherine (Suzanne Dean) won a fellowship to study for a year in London. Boyfriend Don (Patrick Rafferty) stayed behind, where her roommate Gwen (Christina Morrell) wooed and won him. Since then Catherine has become something of a rock star in the world of feminist studies, while Don and Gwen focused on domesticity: she’s a stay-at-home mom with two kids who never got her graduate degree, while he is dean at “a fourth-rate liberal-arts college,” his intellectual ambitions a thing of the past. Catherine is seeing them for the first time in a dozen years, having come back from New York to stay with her devoted mother (Mary-Margaret Lewis), who recently had a heart attack. As we soon find out, this visit was precipitated by a drunken phone call a few weeks earlier, when Catherine and Gwen confided to each other their doubts about the road taken. Catherine went so far as to say she would like to switch lives with Gwen, and now Gwen has gone further: she’s taken steps to make it a reality.
Gionfriddo has a lot to say in Rapture, Blister, Burn (a terrible title for this play), but she doesn’t always find a good way to say it. To cram in all of the feminist philosophy she thinks she needs (and probably does need) to tell this story, Gionfriddo has come up with the awkward conceit of having Catherine teach a course in her mother’s living room, Gwen and Avery (Kimmy Shields), Gwen and Don’s 21-year-old babysitter, being the only students. This certainly provides a forum for some trigenerational takes on both Friedan and Schlafly, but it’s all woefully contrived.
More generally, Gionfriddo never manages to make her characters sound very lifelike. Their emotions and reactions are genuine enough, but most of the dialog has a wonkiness that sounds like what a creative AI might come up with to flesh out these human-made scenarios. Director Mark Piatelli hasn’t done anything to ameliorate this. His cast seems capable of evoking genuine human interaction, but Piatelli seems to have been satisfied with their work once it got to the level of rendering the lines smoothly. That’s great if you’re doing Oscar Wilde, which is supposed to sound artificial, but it’s bad for a human drama. At one point in the show Shields flubbed a line the way people do in the heat of a back-and-forth, and that flub—and the heat that came with it, the way she flushed as she tried to get out what she meant to say—was my favorite bit of acting, giving Gionfriddo’s dialog the good kick in the ass it needs.
Despite these shortcomings, Rapture, Blister, Burn offers much to chew on. After intermission Gionfriddo cleverly takes us in unexpected directions. The world and the people in it are messy, and perhaps in spite of herself Phyllis Schlafly may have something useful to contribute to the discussion of how women—and men, for that matter—make their way in the world. It’s a nuanced applications of feminisms and how they fit together.
Along the way Gionfriddo drops in some good laughs, especially after intermission, particularly with the character of Avery (Shields does a nice job not being jokey with the best lines), whose supporting role could have been dismissible if Gionfriddo had not taken care to make her a full-fledged member of the story. The humor always seems organic to the goings-on. They’re jokes, but they’re never incongruous to the dramatic flow.
Like people, like society, like the choices women often must make, Rapture, Blister, Burn is imperfect. That doesn’t mean there isn’t enough to redeem it to make it worth your time and effort, for which you will be rewarded with something that stays with you once you’ve left the confines of the little theater in which it plays out.
RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN LITTLE FISH THEATRE • 777 CENTRE ST • SAN PEDRO 90731 • 310.512.6030 • LITTLEFISHTHEATRE.ORG • FRI-SAT 8PM; AUG 28 (SUN) 2PM • $25-27; WITH DINNER $38-48 • THROUGH SEPT 3
(Photo credit: Mickey Elliott)