Rapture, Blister, Burn
It's a case of greener grass on the other side of the accomplishment divide in the Huntington Theatre Company's production of Gina Gionfriddo's 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist play.
Rapture, Blister, Burn is both a thumbnail sketch of the history (and major debates) of feminism and an examination of how life's discontents have a way of seeping in, no matter how high one's start has risen.
Ivy League star academic Catherine (Kate Shindle) returns to her home town to care for her ailing mother, Alice (Nancy E. Carroll), whose recent heart attack has thrown Catherine into a near panic. If Alice dies, who will Catherine -- who has placed career above family, and remained single -- have left?
Former boyfriend Don (Timothy John Smith), who has managed to secure a deanship at a local college, starts to look good to Catherine once again, despite his career being stuck in low gear (and his head in a cloud of marijuana smoke). The problem is that Don is married to Catherine's onetime roommate, Gwen (Annie McNamara).
Or is that a problem? Don and Gwen are an archetypically unhappy couple, their expectations in one another having been left unfulfilled. Gwen has stopped drinking and taken up an even worse habit, that of perpetually confessional (and incessant) chatter. It would be enough to drive Don to drink in his turn, if Don didn't spend so much time already getting intoxicated.
"You can have him," Alice croons to her daughter, "if you want him."
But why would a woman of Catherine's accomplishments want Don? That's the nifty little mystery that Gionfriddo bats around. It all boils down to love and attraction, or maybe biological determinism. In a small summer class taken by only two students -- Gwen, and Gwen's former babysitter, a 20-something post-feminist named Avery (Shannon Esper), those very questions form the kernel of a series of classes revolving around the roles of men and women in family, society, and life.
The dialogue veers, from time to time, into artificiality, as everyone, including the comparatively uneducated Alice, reels off smooth-sounding straight out of academia. But this is a minor quibble given how cleverly the dialogue's strands loop and wind around themselves, returning again and again to the crucial questions: Are women really going to be happy as long as they insist being treated as the equals of men?
Catherine herself has been pondering this question, wondering whether she might not be more fulfilled if she, like Gwen, has taken up the duties of motherhood and household management. Gwen, on the other hand, can't help wondering what heights she might conquer, even at this late date, if she finished her degree. Each woman yearns to try the other's life on for size and, in a twist that belongs equally to Coward's "Design for Living" and reality TV's "Wife Swap," they manage to give it a go in order to find out.
Gionfriddo has created a lucid, illuminated entertainment that's as well tuned emotionally as it is intellectually rigorous. Philosophers, celebriphers, and hacks all have their say here; whether they are mulling Rousseau, quoting Dr. Phil, or, improbably, toasting Phyllis Schafly, this play's multigenerational quartet of strong, smart female characters bring light, and delight, into one of the knottiest and most intractable debates of modern times. By comparison, Don is somewhat shallow -- a stereotypical cross between big shaggy dog and puer eternus, though he at least has the virtue of being able to see this about himself.
The cast are stellar, and the talent behind the stage equally so. Alexander Dodge's scenic design unfolds from itself to transform into locales like Don's back yard and Catherine's living room; the one gripe one might have is that Catherine's house features walls with the same rough blue wooden shingles as the outside of Don't house, which is a little distracting.
Jeff Croiter's lights are cunningly tucked into nooks and recesses of the set, allowing him to bring a lovely glow to the proceedings. M.L. Dogg's sound design boasts some decidedly non-academic choices for music, reminding us that underneath all of these cooly clever exchanges about feminist history and theory, there are some highly charged feelings: Fear, lust, possessiveness, desire, existential anxiety. Director Peter Dubois puts it all together in a way that makes this production hum.
"Rapture, Blister, Burn" continues through June 30 at the Boston center for the Arts. for tickets and more information, please visit huntingtontheatre.org