When she wrote her play Rapture, Blister, Burn, Gina Gionfriddo didn’t set out to pay tribute to Wendy Wasserstein’s feminist classic The Heidi Chronicles. In fact, she was otherwise occupied: “I was trying to write about Internet pornography,” she admits, “and I wasn’t able to get a play to ignite on that subject.”
With the Internet porn idea flagging, she started writing a comedy about two women struggling with midlife crises; it eventually became Rapture, Blister, Burn. Once the play was in previews, a former colleague of Wasserstein congratulated her on her homage.
“I hadn’t intended to do that,” Gionfriddo says. “But The Heidi Chronicles was important to me when I was younger. So I went back and reread it, and my play does read like an homage.”
You can judge for yourself starting Friday, when Zoetic Stage and the Adrienne Arsht Center present a new version of the show, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2013 (Wasserstein’s play won the Pulitzer and a Tony Award for Best Play in 1989).
The Heidi Chronicles follows the character of Heidi Holland over more than 20 years, from her high school days to her adulthood as an art historian, touching on her commitment to the feminist movement in the 1970s and her subsequent questioning of her life choices in the 1980s. Self-examination is also a recurring theme in Rapture, Blister, Burn, in which two friends, Catherine (who has had a busy and successful career) and Gwen (who married and had a family), reconsider their lives as they close in on middle age.
Examining the road less traveled is a common pastime of people in their 40s, but Gionfriddo says that in the beginning the characters skewed younger.
“When we were initially developing the play, we worked with actors on the young side of 35,” she says. “The artistic director said, ‘I think these people are too young. This is a 42-year-old problem, not a 35-year-old problem.’ He was right.”
But though the main characters are women — there is one man, Gwen’s husband — director Stuart Meltzer, artistic director for Zoetic Stage, was interested in the play because of its universality.
“What drew me to this play is recognizing these women,” says Meltzer, who directed last year’s Betrayal for Zoetic. “I have friends who talk like them all the time. They find themselves asking themselves if they’ve made the right decisions. I found that thrilling. I’m turning 45 myself. I can look at my career and choices from a male perspective, and I can relate it to these women. That’s what’s really exciting.”
Mia Matthews, who plays Catherine in the show, also feels that Gionfriddo’s ability to convey universal emotions sets Rapture, Blister, Burn apart.
“I elicited the help of friends to learn lines — straight women, gay women, straight men, gay men — and every person had a visceral reaction to the material,” she says. “It doesn’t just touch on feminism. It touches on humanity, being single, how truly hard it is to have balance between work and family and the constraints of society and what we believe.”
The play’s exploration of modern feminism is a key component of the work for Meltzer. With three generations of women represented, the work offers three different female perspectives.
“Guess what — the word feminism is a bad word again. That was shocking to me,” Meltzer says. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this play as a theater company. A lot of theater companies don’t have it in their mission to go out of the way to produce female playwrights. But we’re trying to increase female voices in the work we do. It’s really unfortunate that in our political climate feminism has turned into a nasty word. I think it’s important to do this play now. Women are in the workplace. They’re moms. They’re running for president. I hope a lot of young women come to see this play with their girlfriends.”
Though Rapture, Blister, Burn deals with meaty topics, its humorous approach is a big part of its appeal, the actors say.
“There are so many hot topics now, to bring a fun way to examine some things and yet still open the conversation is really important,” says Margery Lowe, who plays Gwen in the show. “I can’t imagine leaving the theater and not wanting to discuss some of these issues.”
Matthews agrees, suggesting the best way to see Rapture, Blister, Burn is to make dinner reservations afterward: “There’s a lot to talk about. That’s a gift, to have material you can think about — and not just in a heavy way.”
If You Go
What: Zoetic Stage’s “Rapture, Blister, Burn”
Where: Carnival Studio Theater, Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
When: Friday through Jan. 31; Wednesdays-Saturday 7:30 p.m.; Saturday Jan. 16 only 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Sundays 4 p.m.
Tickets: $50; www.arshtcenter.org