What novelty to see a play that’s not only by and about a woman but that takes feminism as its topic and theme. Gina Gionfriddo’s (Becky Shaw) new play uses the history of the second wave American women’s movement to tease out the consequences of life choices for two women who started in the same place—same graduate program, even sharing the same boyfriend—and ended up very differently.
Gionfriddo’s 21st century view of white middle-class women’s potential choices offers a refreshing rethinking of the tired binaries of professional work versus stay-at-home-motherhood. Rapture, Blister, Burn also recalls 1980s plays by Wendy Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles) and Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart) that addressed similar issues in ways specific to their own historical moment.
Catherine (Judging Amy’s Amy Brenneman), Gwen (Kellie Overbey), and Don (Lee Tergesen) were close friends in graduate school, their relationships comfortably triangulated. Catherine and Don were a couple until she accepted a year’s fellowship in London and didn’t return when he asked. While she was gone, Don mutinied and married Gwen. They had two well-spaced and very different sons, as Catherine’s career exploded with two books about women, pornography, and popular culture that made her a favorite on the television pundits’ circuit.
When Catherine’s beloved mother, Alice (Beth Dixon), suffers a heart attack, Catherine arranges to take a sabbatical year in her home town to care for her. Coincidentally, Don and Gwen live nearby. Through a drunken phone call Catherine makes to her old friends that establishes the play’s themes and its motivating crisis, Don arranges for Catherine to teach at the local college, where he’s now the dean of students.
Fifteen years post-graduate school, the three friends have arrived at the beginning of their collective middle age in various states of disgruntled unhappiness. Though professionally successful, Catherine hasn’t had satisfying romantic relationships and has never married or had children. Don and Gwen’s marriage has calcified into a deadening routine. He’s addicted to porn (though he protests that it’s free and “soft,” rather than graphic or violent) and he lost his ambition years ago, despite his early intellectual and academic promise. Don smokes pot and Gwen nags him to organize and execute his work with socially troubled students.
Don achieved an administrative position in academic student life, though he planned to be a scholar. Gwen dropped out of the graduate program altogether and has made her life caring for her sons and tending to her sobriety. Her recovery has short-circuited her brain editor, so Gwen over-shares and speaks too much truth at mostly the wrong moments. Her self-righteousness is played for laughs, and to Gionfriddo’s credit, a character that could be arch, smug, and conservative winds up being as personally and politically ambivalent and three-dimensional as Don and Catherine.
Gionfriddo delivers her polemic about women’s choices through the conceit of a summer course that Don arranges for Catherine to teach. The only two students to sign up are Gwen, who’s hoping to finally finish her degree, and Avery (Virginia Kull), Gwen and Don’s babysitter, whom Gwen dismisses from their employ when she arrives with a black eye to care for their son. Gwen’s rigid moral code precludes exposing her three-year-old to violence of any sort, even though Avery’s accident resulted from her involvement in a reality-television prank engineered by her boyfriend.
Catherine’s syllabus presents the raw material of Gionfriddo’s argument, as the women discuss insights from Betty Friedan, Nancy Friday, and, for an opposing viewpoint, Phyllis Schlafly, who becomes the counterpoint to more progressive feminist perspectives throughout the play. Avery proves herself a quick study and a complicated, provocative thinker. She’s a nascent “third wave” feminist, though she quickly declines describing herself as a feminist at all in a predictable statement Catherine remarks on ruefully. Gwen uses the course readings to justify her own choice to be a homemaker and to criticize Catherine’s decision to make a life of her career. Alice supplements the three women’s banter with wry observations and the benefit of hindsight. She survived a bad marriage in 1950s America and appreciates everything feminism now offers women.
Rapture, Blister, Burn might be considered The Heidi Chronicles for 2012. Nearly 25 years ago, Wasserstein’s titular heroine—a smart, white, middle-class woman just like Catherine—found herself confronted by a confusing array of new choices. She decided to be a professor with an adopted baby who eschewed marriage to Scoop, the smart narcissist she might have selected as a mate.
Wasserstein’s Heidi observes the feminist movement passing before her eyes, never quite joining in and never quite opting out of the social revolution the play charts at a comfortable remove. Wasserstein’s play ends with Heidi hoping that things will be different for her daughter, postponing the advent of real feminist change to some time in a distant, if hopeful, future.
Gionfriddo’s Catherine Croll is Heidi Holland 25 years later. Catherine, too, is a professor; Catherine, too, is invited to speak about her ideas on television talk shows. But where Wasserstein wrote a brilliant, caustically funny scene in which Heidi Holland fights for airtime between her two male best friends as they show off for television viewers, Gionfriddo clarifies that Catherine is adept as a public intellectual. She’s a regular on Bill Mahr, invited on as the hot academic feminist who sits between a senator and a rapper, speaking with easy confidence.
Catherine’s two ballyhooed books give her street cred and academic prominence at an unnamed Ivy League institution in Manhattan. Her trip into the wilds of New England (every playwright’s favorite location for unnamed, fictional liberal arts colleges) proves her a fish-out-of-water. Her black sheath dress, linen pants, silk shirts, and stiletto heels present her as a don’t-fuck-with-me but fuck-me feminist, sexy and smart.
Director Peter DuBois smoothly moves the play between its two locations: the interior of Alice’s house and the exterior of Don and Gwen’s. Although Catherine seems more comfortable in her mother’s old-fashioned living room than in her friends’ suburban backyard, it’s clear that she’s at home in neither.
But her mother’s recent heart attack prompts Catherine to reexamine her choices. Revisiting her relationships with Don and Gwen highlight what she could have been, if she’d chosen differently. In her drunken phone call, dialed from a bar at which she was picking up men for anonymous sex, she suggests that they might trade lives. Gionfriddo’s plot gradually sets the switch in motion, as Don and Catherine rekindle their old attraction to pursue the fantasy of what might have been, had Catherine returned from London as Don asked. Gwen takes her probably-gay son off to New York to live in Catherine’s apartment while she helps him pursue theatre training.
Needless to say (though I should note this spoiler alert), the switch fails. After a month of Bacchanalian sex, drinking, and DVD film festivals that last all night, Don’s skin turns bad from junk food and beer and sleeplessness and even he, the perpetual teenager, longs to return to the happy constraints of a more structured adult life with Gwen. Gwen, whose central emotional relationship has been with her oldest, show tune-singing son, realizes in New York that the boy actually isn’t gay (at least not for now), and that eventually he’ll leave her for his own life. She tries to reenroll in graduate school, unhappy to be the oldest student in the class until she finally accepts that she’ll never finish her degree. Gwen returns home and Don begs to come back to his familiar low-stakes life.
And our heroine, Catherine? When she gives in to her old attraction to Don, she thinks she can turn back the clock not just on their relationship but on his failed career. Offering advice from her own hard-won success, she suggests topics for books he might write, and wants to take him on an academic junket to Italy. She suspends her own work to play with him all summer, staying up late, eating his pizza, guzzling his beer, performing as though sex and carefree companionship are all that matter.
That real life catches up with all three characters is part of Gionfriddo’s nuanced understanding of 21st century women. Feminism might provide a certain kind of woman, situated in certain ways, with certain choices and advantages. But ultimately, we make our own choices, which have less to do with politics or dogma than with who we are and how we’re hard-wired to interact with a culture that keeps switching out the screensaver on gendered options for living.
Catherine’s achievements happen not just because feminism has established a cultural landscape that makes her success possible but because of her own drive and work ethic. Her scholarship addresses the mutual influence of society and art and media on how women’s evolving roles are digested and disputed and detailed in genre movies like slasher films. As Avery points out toward the play’s end, quoting feminist film critic Carol Clover, horror films once ended with the endangered woman rescued by a heroic man. Now, they more often feature the “final girl,” who survives despite the terrifying attack on her sexuality and her person.
Catherine and Avery are Rapture, Blister, Burn’s final girls. When Don and Gwen resume their marriage, Catherine asks Avery to join her on the Italy trip, and the young woman eagerly accepts. Avery has already suggested that perhaps emotional fulfillment comes from women friends, while sex and a certain kind of stalwart presence is all women can expect from their men. And that’s okay with her and finally, it seems, with Catherine.
With Avery, Gionfriddo updates the Denise character from The Heidi Chronicles. In Wasserstein’s play, Denise represented third wave, younger women’s feminism as a blatant critique of the choices and potentials of second-wavers like Heidi. By contrast, Avery’s engagement with feminism is more forgiving and practical. Rather than rejecting Catherine’s analysis of women’s history and the gendered meanings of contemporary entertainment and culture, Avery explores her teacher’s arguments with humor and insight. Her observations parallel Alice’s, so that the older and younger women’s perspectives bookend Catherine and Gwen’s middle-age, second wave quandaries.
In many plays about women academics—which have become their own subgenre—accomplished women are punished for pursuing lives of the mind. In Margaret Edson’s Wit, the central character—a John Donne scholar—dies of ovarian cancer (nothing like illness as metaphor). In Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why, the molecular biologist who gave up her daughter for adoption to achieve her career also has cancer. In Wasserstein’s Third, a subsidiary academic female character has cancer, and the central female professor has to leave her teaching position to re-center a life Wasserstein suggests has become too stringent and dogmatic.
Unlike these plays (and so many more), Rapture, Blister, Burn narrates five very likable, healthy characters (all beautifully played) and doesn’t rank their choices while it teases out their inevitable differences. Gionfriddo manages to tell a story about a swathe of contemporary middle-class white women that doesn’t judge them, deride, or punish their decisions so much as it contextualizes them within feminist history and the idiosyncrasies of personal, as well as political, choice.
Brenneman performs Catherine as low-key and elegant. She’s not parodied for her intellect, but instead, Brenneman plays her as empathetic and watchful, someone who listens well and speaks carefully. She doesn’t have all the answers to the ambivalences of her own or anyone else’s life. She’s allowed to be sexual without, finally, surrendering her smartness. In Catherine, Gionfriddo explodes the stereotype of the dour, dowdy feminist for a newer archetype.
Alice, Catherine’s mother, and Gwen, the uptight, righteous housewife, tread closer to types we’ve seen before: the wise but funny older mother, entering her dotage with irony and insight, and the resentful, sexless middle-aged mother who buries her hopes in her son to avoid the problems in her marriage. But if these two characters seem a bit less three-dimensional, they nonetheless provide a context in which to view Catherine and Avery’s choices more magnanimously. That Dixon and Overbey play Alice and Gwen with such intelligent generosity also helps avoid the stereotypes. Dixon is spry and sweet as Alice, and Overbey tempers Gwen’s resentment and self-righteousness with a dollop of clear and self-knowing graceful humor.
The acting enlivens each of the five characters. Tergesen is terrific as Don, the much maligned boy-man who’s very comfortable in his unambitious life. The character presents a humorous gender-switch; Don is far from Scoop Rosenbaum in The Heidi Chronicles, who literally scoops Heidi on all their potential life choices. Scoop edits a magazine, becomes a public intellectual, and runs for office, while Heidi dithers over her lack of feminist community and builds a much quieter career as an art historian. In Rapture, Blister, Burn, Don discards his potential for a life that proceeds quietly under the social radar while Catherine moves out into the public world of ideas and culture. Tergesen strikes just the right notes as a charming enough middle-aged man who knows himself and his limitations.
Virginia Kull, as Avery, turns in perhaps the best performance in an ensemble production that boasts five of them. Avery could play as an annoying know-it-all, much like her ‘80s counterpart, Heidi‘s Denise. Instead, she’s a young woman who thinks as she goes, who brings her analysis to bear on history and the present, who’s open to listening and revising her life plan. Kull brings a refreshing mix of ambivalence and certainty to the character, as well as a wonderfully ingenuous earnestness. Interpreted by Kull, Avery is young and hopeful and eager to be tutored and mentored as she works toward making her own life choices. Kull’s performance grounds the play’s sunny outlook on cross-generational feminism.
Catherine and Avery consider their lives within the context of a larger movement. Rapture, Blister, Burn has its didactic moments, in part because of its pedagogical conceit. Several scenes show Catherine literally leading the other women through texts, as they teach themselves and think about feminism as an historical movement and a present-day option. They drink martinis while they work that encourage them to be personal in their responses to what they read.
Occasionally, I feared that viewers might think feminist seminars are all and only about the experiential sharing that Catherine encourages from Gwen and Avery in their encounters with the assigned reading. But as a dramaturgical choice, I appreciated that feminism was an overt part of the discussion, that ideas became the yardstick against which all four women—and by extension, Don—measured their lives and aspirations.
At the play’s end, Avery and Catherine celebrate their decision to go to Italy together and Alice applauds their detachment from men. The three women lean over the candles lit in the hurricane lamp that’s warmed the scene to blow them out. As their faces converge over the flames and the stage lights fade, the moment explicitly recalls the end of Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, in which the three sisters blow out the oldest daughter’s birthday candles on a note of hope for a better future.
With this gesture, director DuBois and Gionfriddo bring Rapture, Blister, Burn full circle in its homage to 1980s plays by women that address women’s choices and the potential of feminism as a movement and as a way of life.
In Gionfriddo’s hands, feminism is a practice pliable enough for anyone.
The Feminist Spectator
Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo, Playwrights Horizons through June 24 (discussed performance of May 30, 2012).