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Rapture, Blister, Burn — Wilma Theater

rapture -- interior 2So many current playwrights would benefit from taking Gina Gionfriddo as their model.

Not only does Gionfriddo deal with interesting themes that provoke thought and display a knowing and sane sensibility, but she writes dialogue that zings with reality and wit and provides multiple well-deserved laughs while honing in on attitudes and situations that plague our modern consciousness and make us more neurotic than we’re inclined to be already.

In “Becky Shaw,” Gionfriddo provides my single favorite line of dialogue from a 21st century play, “The next time you decide to commit suicide, Becky, do me a favor and try harder.”

In her newest piece, “Rapture, Blister, and Burn,” being given a sharply hilarious production at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater, Gionfriddo tackles nothing less than the women’s movement of the last 45 years and the various points of view it has wrought. More than that, it looks at the judgment women impose on themselves and others as they gauge how they and every woman they know fits within some amorphous understanding of the movement’s tenets.

Catherine, on the surface, could be a candidate for a woman who has most fulfilled the dreams of liberation founders. She is an independently wealthy writer and professor that travels internationally giving lectures on her niche subject, woman and porn. Or more precisely, women in porn.

Except for a calendar of speaking engagements, Catherine is essentially free to make choices. She can blithely decide to give up her toney New York lifestyle to return to the college town where she grew up and take care of her mother, Alice, who Catherine has branded as a needy invalid since she had a heart attack a few months before “Rapture, Blister, Burn” begins. Catherine predicates this obligation to monitor her Mom on Alice’s family history. Both of Alice’s older sisters died within a year of having a heart attack. Alice, trying to lessen the fuss Catherine makes over her, says, “I’m stronger than they were. I always was.”

We soon learn that Catherine has another motive for coming home to the New England halls of ivy of her youth. She wants a man. Not any man who happens along and excites her fancy, but a particular man, a specific man, Don, her college boyfriend from whom she parted when she was given an opportunity in London while Don, though invited to join her, opted to stay home.

It appears the only thing missing from Catherine’s feminist paradise is a lasting relationship with another person, a man being the overwhelming preference. Her failure at romance irks Catherine. It becomes her Everest, and she must surmount it.  After all, she has so much to offer, and not just her money and fame among people in her field. Catherine is smart and competent and open to exploration and experiment. She can be loose in crowds, hold a decent conservation, know what she’s talking about, and be funny. Like all of Gionfriddo’s characters who, in their own way, intentionally or not, are funny.

Catherine has contacted Don, now a dean at their hometown’s college, to ask for a job to give her some income while she tends to her Mom.

We realize this a ruse, that Catherine may need something beyond caregiving to occupy her, but that money is not the object.

Don must be. And is. The rub is Don is married to Gwen, who likes traditions such as marital fidelity, and who has settled nicely into being a homemaker that takes care of her house and children while her husband works and supplies financial needs, however insufficiently.

Gwen is sensitive to notions that people, women in particular, look down at her because she has chosen not to work and to stay at home to pay attention to her family. She is particularly aware of Catherine, who she knows had a relationship with Don, mainly because she is the woman who broke it up and stepped in to take Don from Catherine. She is also cognizant that Catherine has found success as an author on women’s subjects. She begins a reunion of sorts by asking Catherine to autograph her two best-selling books.

Gwen is not as intimidated as much as wary. She senses Catherine’s motives and is alert to how having her in town and befriending her might play out.

Gwen is also modern to the point of irritation about parenting. She insists Don dismiss a baby sitter, Avery, who , she says cannot possibly be suitable to mind their three-year-old, Devin, when she comes to work sporting a black eye she got from her boyfriend, although accidentally and not as the result of abuse or assault.

Devin, labelled by Don as a narcissist, doesn’t notice Avery’s wound, but Gwen is adamant, and her stance against the bruised babysitter is only one of her parenting precepts. Gwen, you see, is someone who goes by the books she reads to figure out what to do or to please the neighboring mothers in the small town she inhabits. Catherine, by contrast, writes the books.

An impending clash between Catherine and Gwen becomes obvious to the point of being dramatically imperative, but peace reigns at first.

Then we see Catherine at work. In several ways, but the first is as a teacher. Don has secured a class for her to teach about the women’s movement. Because enrollment is light, Catherine decides to hold her seminar in Alice’s home. It turns out her only students are Gwen and Avery, with Alice sitting in occasionally and providing martinis that become the basis for group celebration as well as some canny jokes about WASPs and drinking from Gionfriddo.

The class, and Catherine’s ongoing campaign for Don, who even in academic scruffiness continues to attract her, become the fulcrum of Gionfriddo’s play.

In the class, women’s roles are discussed, and Gwen becomes defensive about being a stay-at-home Mom, even after she learns from Catherine’s assigned reading that Betty Friedan validates that choice as long as one is acknowledged as working and being paid in some way.  Catherine represents, more than advocates for, the independent woman Friedan and others admired and said would emerge.

Gwen and Catherine come to represent the poles of the women’s movement, while Avery, a younger beneficiary of its victories, can take or leave philosophy as she pleases, and Alice, though of an age at which she could have gotten caught up in women’s issues, tends to play her life more by ear and takes little notice of the politics of her youth and didn’t engage in them even then.

It’s the idea of absolutes, symbolized by Gwen and Catherine and made pointed by Gwen, that help to drive “Rapture, Blister, Burn.” Meanwhile, Avery, by commenting on the complications wrought by trying to fit in into a model, has the show’s best lines, and Alice provides a core of common sense as a woman who doesn’t see much need for a movement related to her gender.

Avery is liberated, in a real sense, and can say and do what she wants, including about boys and her career. She doesn’t tie any of her decisions to what they might say about women or mean to a movement. She finds much of what Gwen and Catherine have to say funny because it is so far from her thought process. She’s  not part of a group. She’s an individual who doesn’t think of boys as superiors, let alone gods, and who doesn’t see much impediment to having the career she wants. One of the reasons Avery gets so many laughs is because she is such an independent spirit and can lampoon attitudes both Gwen and Catherine express.

Avery pierces an assortment of balloons with her “it is what it is” approach. You welcome and wait for her next rejoinder or next expression of wonder that some behavior or circumstance is an issue that engages anyone in discussion, let alone heated debate or argument.

Alice, meanwhile, supplies the wisdom of age. She gets laughs telling about how she endured Catherine’s father and prevailed. Alice’s idea is to live your life , purely and simply. To her, talk about current trends in how a woman should approach this or that happenstance is all right as long as you don’t let any specific  philosophy or pronouncement unduly influence your choices and make you go against your instincts.

You see the extremes come out when the ideas of Betty Friedan are contrasted with those of Phyllis Schlafly who posits that the woman who thinks she wants everything, and attains it, will retreat back to tradition once she reaches an age when she is concerned that she has no discernable roots and that there is no family or companion to love her.

Catherine goes exactly through these pangs, which makes Gionfriddo’ s play even more interesting.

All the care Gionfriddo takes care to set up the various wants and needs that drive her characters, including portraying Don as a lazy wastrel who likes his job because it’s cushy, requires minimal effort, and affords him ample time to spend hours smoking weed and ejaculating to porn, shows she is a comedian from the school of Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Molière, Congreve, Sheridan, Shaw, and Stoppard, one who upholds the status quo, or at least the middle course, by poking fun at and exposing extremes and where they lead. Gionfriddo is conservative in the best way, not in the manner of Phyllis Schlafly as much as in the tradition of the writers I’ve mentioned, one who sees and can show the folly of going too far in any direction or with any philosophy. Gionfriddo seems to back the open approach of Avery or the non-caring common sense attitude of Alice while she lets Catherine and Gwen have their philosophical mudfight and shows how both Friedan and Schlafly have points, just not definitive or complete points.

“Rapture, Blister, Burn” is an exciting, amusing play because it entertains so consistently and thoroughly while examining a contemporary foible, the absolute and doctrinaire acceptance of movements and what they preach. It also tells a great story about the dynamics of love and how today’s relaxed mores affect marriage and the urge to couple.

Gionfriddo is a master at dissecting her character’s thoughts and showing them to be convoluted and riddled with someone else’s ideas, Avery’s being the most unsullied because she grew up at a time when so much that was important to two immediately past generations is of little moment or controversy in hers. Avery comes hard-wired to be independent and optimistic. Alice, Catherine, and Gwen may not have had that luxury.

“Rapture, Blister, Burn” is a good piece that explores interesting territory and shows a lot of situations for exactly what they are. That it contains a wonderful laugh line every two minutes is a bonus, a grand one. The treat is being able to follow the wanderings of Gionfriddo’s mind and to see how she organized her play to bring out so much provocative material so neatly and entertainingly.

Gionfriddo gives texture to all of her characters. Gwen, at first, seems to be the cipher feminists might brand her for electing to eschew outside employment and be a homemaker, but when she speaks up in Catherine’s class, you see some depth and see how conscious she is of her choice, how self-conscious it makes her, but how well she can argue for its validity.

Gwen  becomes a wild card of sorts, a woman of decided principles and tastes, who is manipulated into accepting an arrangement she doesn’t want but knows somehow will work out in her favor.

To some extent, Gwen is as much as force to be reckoned with as Catherine. She has one advantage of entering into a situation with her eyes wide open while Catherine will romanticize her life because she wants something so badly and because she is accustomed to waging a campaign until she inevitably gets her will.

Catherine will be more surprised by the realities of life than Gwen because Gwen copes with those realities every day while Catherine more usually exists in the stratospheric ozone of the academic, publishing, and social worlds. She plays well at domesticity when given a taste of it, but she has her mother, Don, and even Gwen to fall back on for support while Gwen has only Don, who is relatively useless in major situations.

A lot happens in “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” but it all revolves around women’s images and ambitions for themselves. In Catherine’s case, sustaining a relationship and believing she won’t be alone if and when her mother passes, is the aim. It’s tantamount to the one hurdle she hasn’t conquered, and she’s keen on doing with Don, who moves in with Catherine and Alice for a while, Devin in two.

Gwen wants to prove herself in a wider world, but her main purpose in sending Don to live with Catherine while she takes residence in Catherine’s New York apartment, is maternal. She wants her older son, Julian, to realize his ambition of taking acting lessons. The contented New England homemaker finds life is not fulfilling in NYC, and she’s a bit nonplussed when she realizes Julian is not gay, as all suspected given his love for show tunes and regular attendance at “Wicked,” and can thrive without her.

Both women want to prove something Alice, and even Ashley, knows is not worth the effort.

Joanna Settle’s production for the Wilma couldn’t be clearer or more entertaining. Settle’s pacing keeps “Rapture, Blister, Burn”  lively on both physical and conversational planes. The discussions and debates during Catherine’s classes remain fun to follow throughout the show. You half want to add seventy-one percent of your two cents as you listen to the women bandy about the ideas of Friedan and Schlafly and about how women are portrayed in porn. Movie buffs will particularly enjoy the many references and comments Gionfriddo includes in the dialogue.

Most important of all, you believe everything you see on the Wilma stage (Alice’s hideous furniture being the only possible exception). No matter how anyone behaves, you accept it at face value, especially since all of the characters at some point illustrate all that has been said about them and all they say about themselves.

Gionfriddo’s language is crisp and funny, and Settle’s staging matches it. You are in the presence of two smart women who keep a barrage of information and plot twists exciting. Wilma’s “Rapture, Blister, Burn” has a special exuberance that holds your attention and prompts you to go along with the action, even in the one sequence that seems a bit outlandish, a camping night, with tents made from sheets and turned over chairs in Alice’s living room. I got blissfully caught up in the bright intelligence of it all.

Krista Apple-Hodge shows total command as Catherine. She is woman who knows and is proud of what she’s accomplished and woman who has her eye on a new prize and has every intention of claiming it.

Apple-Hodge triggers the show’s sharpness with Catherine’s laser-like method of getting what she wants and simple approach to getting her point across. This is a woman who wanted to leave a small town and make an international mark. When Don hesitated about moving with her to London, she jettisoned him. It’s only 20 years later, when Catherine realizes he was the closest she came to landing a man who might stick around, that she returns to him to see whether decades of absence, or even his allegedly happy marriage, makes a difference

Maia DeSanti is a good foil as Gwen, plainer and more passive aggressive than Catherine but just as determined to preserve what’s hers, and that’s Don and their children.

Gwen is as provincial as Catherine is cosmopolitan, and DeSanti plays the small-town mouse well, seeming predictably conventional and middle class, even to the point of practicing the latest trend in child rearing.

It is a surprise when Gwen grows a little bit, and that she is so easily persuaded to trade places with Catherine in a plan that asks her to leave her three-year-old behind to be raised, at least temporarily by Catherine and her Mom. DeSanti’s portrayal soon makes it clear Gwen hasn’t really budged an inch and entered Catherine’s arrangement because she was too timid to resist entreaties from both Catherine and Don.

In the long run, it doesn’t matter which feminist’s philosophy Gwen accepts because like Alice ands Avery, she is going to be Gwen first, foremost, and always.

Campbell M. O’Hare (who should drop that middle initial) has wonderful timing with the many one-liners and responses Gionfriddo gives Avery.

O’Hare’s Avery makes Generation Next women very appealing with her unsentimental,  no-nonsense look at dating, men, love, and feminism. Avery is the most natural of the beings onstage. She seems untied to trends, culture, or peer expectation. She is free with language, open in attitude, and already a fan of martinis.

Avery is not the kind to wonder how anything she thinks or does reflects on women in general. If she likes a guy, she’ll give him a whirl. If she thinks she’d like to have sex with him, she will. If anyone thinks sex is some sign of love or commitment, Avery knows it isn’t. A dance is just a dance with her.

In some ways, she is the beneficiary of the consideration Catherine, Gwen, and even Alice gave their lives and their choices. They have paved the way for Avery not to care about any deeper meaning that doing what she wants when it pleases her to do it. She doesn’t relate her behavior to a attracting or relating to a guy. It’s all matter-of-fact to Avery, and she enjoys the liberation.

Gionfriddo paints Avery so well and with such carefree independence, you hope she’s an accurate portrait of a young woman of 2014 because her attitudes and ideas smack of so much sense and so little allegiance or false responsibility to what others say is acceptable or correct.

Nancy Boykin endows Alice with humor and the wisdom that comes with age, and perhaps from a brush with mortality. Boykin is quite straightforward and has a good time in every scene suddenly announces it’s time for a martini.

Harry Smith adds to a year’s worth of wonderful performances as the disheveled, unambitious, mildly feckless Don.

Smith demonstrates clearly how much Don enjoys being a drone who enjoys his internet fantasies and who would rather sit on his recliner smoking weeds and becoming engorged than write the book he constantly talks about or take an interest in making his cushy job more productive.

Gwen talks about how she has to motivate Don to do enough to keeps his job, and Smith show you that laziness as well as a juvenile side that makes you think Don might enjoy an action game on his laptop as a break from porn.

Catherine is so naïve in dealing with men, Avery and Alice simultaneously groan and point out her mistake when she tries to encourage Don to achieve on the level she does.

Kristen Robinson’s set is a hoot in ways. A prominent sign on the middle of the back wall says, “Home” as if to underscore we are in the domiciles ruled by Gwen and Alice.

Gwen’s home is symbolized by a plastic bench and table ensemble that only Devin the three-year-old would be able to use. There’s also a toy or some other object suggesting a child on the floor near her. The rooms in Gwen’s house are sparse and cater to the children, as Gwen would probably prefer.

While you don’t see any of Gwen and Don’s real furniture, you get a good look at Alice’s which seems to have come from a patio shop and is fairly ugly with big orange and yellow flowers on sectionals that can be moved around for the convenience of Settle’s staging.

Alice’s living room, with a sofa and several large chairs identically upholstered in a garish print, looks like veranda of  a second-rate spa with its furniture that looks as if it was discarded from a beach house. The sections of the chair are used in various interesting combinations, but the fabric is almost too ugly to endure.

Rosemarie McKelvey dresses all of the characters appropriately. Thom Weaver’s lighting makes both living rooms seems as if they exposed to the sun.

The distinctive score for “Rapture, Blister, Burn” is written by Stew, who had a great 2009 Broadway hit called “Passing Strange” I wish the composer could bring to Philadelphia.

“Rapture, Blister, Burn” runs through Sunday, November 2 , at the Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. A 2 p.m. matinee is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 29. No 7:30 p.m. show is set for Sunday, Nov. 2. Tickets are $25 with a generous discount for students and can be obtained by calling 215-546-7824 or by visiting www.wilmatheater.org.

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