5th Wall’s ‘Rapture, Blister, Burn’ offers controversial feminist theory in a compelling format
An unenlightened man hearing that the play he was going to see was about three generations of women discussing feminist politics, might cause such a man pause.
In this case, such a man needn’t have worried.
The clever conceit by Ms. Gianfriddo is to present the politics by way of a College seminar covering “Media, Violence and Women’s Issues.”
The seminar turns out to be a class of two in the professor’s living room. One student is the professor’s college roommate who married the professor’s boyfriend (who is now a college dean himself) and the other student is the professor/husband’s current college client (He is the Dean of Bad Students or some such thing) who was fired as the couple’s babysitter when she showed up with a black eye.
Though admittedly contrived, the forced set up allows the women to immediately get personal about their lives and opinions. Over cocktails.
The best friend, named Gwen (Sara Heifitz), complains about her marriage which gives the professor/friend, named Catherine (Donna Marie Miller), a green light to resume her relationship with Gwen’s husband, named Don (Dean Knight), who used to be her college boyfriend and whom she has always regretted not marrying.
The image of women rapping away about gender roles may harken back to a seemingly distant era, but the rap itself is rich in new perspectives. Consider this unlikely phenomenon: The ideas of Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-feminist scold of the “me” decade, are given about as much airtime as those of Betty Friedan, one of the movement’s heroines.
And guess what? Defending Ms. Schlafly from dismissive scorn is the fiery feminist academic.
(Watching this play at this exact time is a little eerie given that Ms. Shafly died just a few days ago.)
“Look, Schlafly is very clear that when a man and woman come together, the man must lead, and the woman must follow,” Catherine says. “Now, yes, that’s an offensive notion when you put it out there as a rule. But my middle-aged observation is that in a relationship between two people, you can’t both go first.”
Catherine has achieved fame as an expert on Women’s Issues but at forty-something, childless and single, having struck out at dozens of start-up relationships, what she thinks she really wants is the white picket fence family that Gwen has.
The question of “can a woman have it all” may be more relevant today due to the increased female presence in the halls of power. Two substantial incomes are now necessary for upper middle class life. Who is going to raise the kids?
If you ask the college student Avery (Aiden Orr), the nanny will.
Ms. Gionfriddo’s play wisely doesn’t answer the question but presents each point of view. Gionfriddo illustrates that each generation of women has to struggle with evolving attitudes toward marriage, not to mention the seemingly unchanging verities of the male psyche.
Catherine has returned to her hometown to take care of her mother, Alice (Linda Beringer). Alice has recently had a heart attack, but Catherine’s arrival has as much to do with feeling adrift and unsatisfied — in search of a stable home — as it does with her mother’s illness.
At their first class, the best friend Gwen opens up about the problems in her marriage, which range from a grinding lack of funds to her husband Don’s addictions to pot and pornography. She also has second thoughts about her decision years ago to forgo her own academic career. She is the catalyst of the drama as she purposely contacted Catherine to lure her back home to teach. She think she’s stuck in domestic hell and idealizes the life Catherine has.
The set up for the feminist argument is that both women are unsatisfied.
Avery, full of the youthful arrogance of her ignorance, looks at the difference between the sexes differently. She and her boyfriend are “hooking up exclusively,” she corrects Gwen, not “exclusively hooking up.” To Avery neither Catherine’s nor Gwen’s life seems a valuable model. As she puts it, “You either have a career and wind up lonely and sad, or you have a family and wind up lonely and sad?”
What’s exiting about Ms. Gionfriddo’s play is that it doesn’t limit the dilemma to either/or. It posits the multiplicity of the ideas it engages. Heady with sharp-witted dialogue about the particularities of women’s experience (there’s a joke about pornography and Google maps, believe it or not). “Rapture” more largely illuminates how hard it can be to forge both a satisfying career and a fulfilling personal life in an era that seems to demand superhuman achievement from everyone.
Under the quiet, naturalist direction of Carol Piersol, the cast brings Ms. Gionfriddo’s characters to fully felt life without a lot of noise or distractions. She does, however allow the scene changes to go on too cumbersomely long when less movement and adornment would have been right in line with her direction and Vinnie Gonzolez’ minimalist set.
Ms. Miller is perfectly cast. She exudes an energetic intelligence — and a winsome beauty — that makes her Catherine wholly credible. But her sensitively drawn performance also reveals the emotional yearning at the character’s core.
Ms. Heifitz bravely compromises her natural beauty to elucidate her character’s unhappy status. She dresses like she feels. Clean and put together but without care to makeup, hairstyle or fashion. A very smart actor, she elevates Gwen’s emotional output putting her in direct contrast to Catherine’s faux coolness and Dan’s actual ambivalence.
Dean Knight also compromises his natural beauty to play the stoner, porn addicted Dean of Bad Students. Giving Dean Dean respect for the detachment he feels for his life, wife and ambition, his sacrifice is well served.
Mr. Knight has excelled playing sleaze balls as of late and he does not disappoint here. He looks quite the mess but has a charming, smarmy dryness that was only equaled by the martinis being poured on stage. Knowing Mr. Knight to be an intellectual conservative in manner, this is quite the acting coup.
At one point, Dan walks in very high (on marijuana!) and wants the women to admire the colors and formation of a leaf he has been studying. Here, I fear Mr. Knight has failed to do his pre-production research.
Having no basis to know other than having watched “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” I suspect that Mr. Knight is no Jeff Spiccoli.
Linda Beringer plays Alice, Catherine’s mom, with a loving kindness and knowing wisdom that is enviable. Having some of the best lines in the play, perhaps they would have had greater impact had Alice been more the cynic. Still, Ms. Beringer leant a gravitas that was critical to the mixture of views.
The find of the evening was Aiden Orr as Avery. Ms. Orr is still a college student, but brought an easy honesty and freshness to a difficult role. Carriage, attitude, timing, depth of character choices matched her seasoned colleagues. She was wonderful as the outspoken Avery, who doesn’t shy from speaking her mind about just how and why her elders have screwed up their lives.
As expected Avery is disappointed by the man in her life but still finds positive progression of women’s strength in of all things, an academic consideration of the meanings of slasher movies.
“O.K., maybe the world has changed,” she says. “That guy who comes in and saves the girl in the end? He might not be coming. But the girl is still going to be O.K.”
The surviving-the-psycho metaphor may not be a particularly heartwarming one, but as the somewhat arcane title of Ms. Gionfriddo’s play suggests, a well-lived life today still means working your way through the pain and suffering that are the obstacles of life’s goal, happiness.
A fine play expertly presented. Chalk one up for Fifth Wall Theatre.
Rapture, Blister, Burn runs now through 10/8 at the HATT Theatre. You can snag tickets for the show here.
Top image via Danny Holcomb
Just got this in our inbox, check out details below: Auditions for 5th Wall Theatre’s production of Luna Gale by Rebecca Gilman will be held on Sunday, September 18 from 7-9 at RVA Event Space, 1 East 4th St. Richmond, VA. 23224. The show will be directed by Bill Patton and the cast breakdown is: 1 female, late [...]August 31, 2016
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