What does happiness look like for a middle-aged woman these days? If she has a husband and kids, she has the hearth and home thing nailed, but what about those aspirations she once had for a career and sexual freedom? And if she is single and has the latter, how does she feel when she’s in her forties left alone with her glowing resume and no partner or children who love her?
In short, it comes down to the eternal question: What do women want? And the answer, such as it is, is both funny and insightful in the play Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo now at Convergence-Continuum Theater. This is a densely-packed, super-heady piece of theater that never loses its grip on the audience thanks to the skillful direction of Geoffrey Hoffman.
This is a fresh turn for Con-Con, which often deals with plays that focus on gay folks—their challenges, joys and tribulations. But in this piece, four hetero women characters dominate the stage along with a man who is, by his own admission, a slacker.
Catherine (a sometimes fiery, sometimes conflicted Laurel Hoffman) is a feminist author and media personality who is visiting her pal from grad school Gwen. The thing is, Gwen married Don (Aaron Ellersich doing a mellow turn), Catherine’s boyfriend in college, and Gwen and Don now have two kids and a happy(?) life. Adding to the complications is the fact that Catherine has taken a position as a media studies prof at the school. This leads to Catherine and Don getting closer again.
Turns out, Catherine really longs for the connected family life that Gwen has, while Gwen (a nicely emotive Rocky Encalada) is envious of Catherine’s jet-setting lifestyle of freedom and academic achievement. These tensions are intriguingly aggravatged and exposed by Avery, a student at the college who babysits for Gwen and Don, and who registers for Catherine’s class along with Gwen—where they continue their feminist discussions.
Sure, it’s all pretty contrived, but playwright Gionfriddo manipulates the wordy conversations among these women with style. Sahe even manages to wedge Catherine’s mom Alice (Anne McEvoy) into the proceedings, contributing a voice from an older generation. This is particularly startling when Alice and then Catherine wind up defending some of the positions of the right-wing scold Phyllis Schlafly, who posited that men should lead in the relationship and women must follow. Yikes! Go ahead and see if that doesn’t start some heated arguments on the ride home.
If there is a wrinkle in this production, it is that the detailed words and thoughts of Avery, Gwen and Catherine are at times delivered with too much speed and slickness. This turns the intellectually appealing screeds into little memorization sideshows that run the risk of minimizing the impact of the script. More variation in the pacing of those moments could also help some of the quips (and there are many) land better.
That said, this is a well-performed, thoughtful play that covers a whole lot of ground as it diagnoses, with large dollops of wit, the state of women and their relationships. It’s like Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles from a couple decades ago, but with an intellectual, feminist-oriented dissection of torture-porn and slasher movies thrown in. Now there‘s an unexpected holiday treat for you!
Rapture, Blister, Burn
Through December 15 produced by Convergence-Continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Rd., 216-687-0074, convergence-continuum.org.