Friday, February 13, 2015

Thematically Combustible 'Rapture, Blister, Burn' Smolders More Than Sizzles -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Rapture, Blister, Burn
a recent play by Gina Gionfriddo
directed by Kimberly Senior
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 22
@@@1/2

At the end of Rapture, Blister, Burn, I turned to my mom--my longtime Goodman Theatre co-subscriber--and noted, more for my sake than for hers, that one shouldn't mistake aversion to actions & decisions of characters in the play as being an indictment of the quality of the play itself.

In other words, creating flawed, inconsistent, even unlikable characters may well be more true to life--and artistically impressive--than the portrayal of more easily embraceable individuals who might make for a user-friendlier play.

On the ride home, mom and I continued to discuss Gina Gionfriddo 5-character play--a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2013--which focuses on feminism and the choices many women must make between having families and furthering their careers.

Thus, in sharing that I didn't quite love Rapture, Blister, Burn, I cannot be dismissive of it as anything less than a substantive, thought-provoking drama, with numerous LOL moments to boot. 

I just found it to be more a good play than a great one.

The narrative centers, at least initially, on the dichotomy between two former grad school classmates, Gwen and Catherine, played here by Karen Janes Woditsch and Jennifer Coombs, respectively.

Without revealing more than the opening setup, Gwen had dropped out of grad school and has long been married to Don (Mark L. Montgomery), another former classmate who had previously been Catherine's boyfriend, before she went to London for a year and he stayed behind. 

Gwen and Don have two sons, while as a noted feminist scholar with two popular books, the single Catherine is more accomplished professionally than either of them.

As Catherine has now reconnected with her ex-friend and former lover after years of shunning them, much of Rapture, Blister, Burn is ostensibly an exploration of the life choices women must often make. 

Although the script name drops famed feminists--including Betty Friedan--and that of noted anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, the play doesn't really espouse favoritism for either the family or career path, both which are shown to have their advantages, sacrifices, joys and despairs. 

The 2-act play's two other characters--a young woman named Avery (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason) who initially is a babysitter for Gwen/Don but then factors in more heavily, and Catherine's mom Alice (the always excellent Mary Ann Thebus)--further serve to make Rapture, Blister, Burn an intelligent piece that puts forth a variety of viewpoints.

The director, Kimberly Senior, is one of the best in Chicago, whose talents have now taken her to Broadway with Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced. I've seen several shows she's helmed--including The Overwhelming, The Pillowman, The Whipping Man and After the Revolution--and have liked all of them.

And the home interior/exterior set designs by Jack Magaw--who happens to be Senior's husband--are impressive, as is par for the course in the spacious confines of Goodman's Albert Theatre. 

So there is much to like and admire about Rapture, Blister, Burn, and this @@@1/2 (out of 5) review shouldn't be seen as negative, just not effusively positive. 

For though it moves along at a good pace and addresses an interesting topic smartly and humorously, I just didn't find the play in sum all that insightful nor compelling. 

And, while understanding all good dramas must cheat reality a little, I found some dramatic liberties hard to look past, such as Catherine's being allowed to teach a college class, at the spur of the moment, within her mother's home, for only 2 students. 

Gwen, who has boys of 3 and 13, seems coldly indifferent to her younger son in making a key decision within the play, during which she barely even mentions him. This seemed a bit askew to me.

And the way Catherine is written, it felt to me that Rapture, Blister, Burn is more soap operatically about lost love and heartbreak from a personal standpoint, rather than a universal fork-in-the-road study of female choices where work and family are at odds.

I didn't really expect--or want--Gionfriddo to ardently take sides, but I don't feel she posed the quandary and inherent debate quite shrewdly enough.

In the end, I was left with something of a clich├ęd sense that "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence." And, at least per the actions and decisions of the play's main characters, that it will always appear this way, no matter what choices one may make. 

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