In sculpting a life, the choices of the moment pave the road toward the future. The women of Gina Gionfriddo’s smart, funny, sometimes scathing Rapture, Blister, Burn have decided to pursue intellectually rigorous careers (or not), become wives and mothers (or not), settle for what they have (or not) as the clock ticks them into middle age.
Gionfriddo’s thought-provoking, cautionary comedy is getting an excellently realized South Florida debut thanks to director Stuart Meltzer and Zoetic Stage, which has just opened its production of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist in the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater.
Thematically, Rapture, Blister, Burn is a clear descendant of Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer-winning 1988 play The Heidi Chronicles. Recently revived on Broadway, Wasserstein’s play follows influential art historian Heidi Holland as she makes a journey from young feminist firebrand to a mature, successful woman longing for more. (And, like Heidi, both Wasserstein and Gionfriddo chose to become single mothers.)
For Gwen Harper (Margery Lowe) and Catherine Croll (Mia Matthews), Gionfriddo has conjured something that reality TV — just one of the play’s frequently skewered pop culture touchstones — might dub Life Swap. Former grad school roommates whose life paths have sharply diverged, Gwen and Catherine have one particular thing in common, beyond gender and a desiccated friendship: When Catherine left her boyfriend Don (Todd Allen Durkin) behind to take a fellowship in London, Gwen moved in.
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Fast forward to the onset of middle age. Married to Don, a disciplinary dean at what he describes as a “fourth-rate” liberal arts college in New England, Gwen is the stay-at-home mom to boys born a decade apart. She’s also a nervously chatty recovering alcoholic, a woman whose husband has devolved into a slacker benumbed by pot and addicted to Internet porn.
Catherine has become a feminist superstar, an academic and author dubbed the “hot doomsday chick.” Telegenic and articulate, she’s a cross between Camille Paglia and a supermodel. Yet the recent heart attack suffered by her mother Alice (Barbara Bradshaw) has her pondering mortality, loneliness and more. Catherine’s laser-focused life has never expanded to include marriage or children. Too late?
The old romantic triangle gets drawn again when Catherine comes home to care for Alice, a spirited woman who still quaffs a martini at happy hour and insists she doesn’t need to be fussed over. Don gets Catherine a fall teaching gig, then adds a summer seminar that attracts exactly two students: Gwen and her former babysitter, 21-year-old Avery Willard (Lexi Langs), whose resume includes the lucrative “raunch feminist” act of working as a stripper.
In her observant, witty and sometimes stinging dialogue, Gionfriddo examines how feminist theory plays out in the lives of these three generations of women. Catherine’s seminar is loaded with discussions of the work of polar opposites Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schafly, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, slasher films, Dr. Phil, the rise of degradation as entertainment.
The playwright maneuvers her two key characters into a swap of their emblematic lives, and though that twist isn’t always credible — would Gwen willingly leave her almost 4-year-old with slacker dad and his besotted reclaimed girlfriend? — Rapture, Blister, Burn is always engrossingly entertaining.
Under Meltzer’s direction, the cast of Carbonell Award winners (Bradshaw and Durkin), nominees (Matthews and Lowe) and Langs (making her Zoetic debut, after previous shows with GableStage and Mosaic Theatre) is as close to flawless as an acting ensemble gets.
Durkin, a busy TV actor whose stage time is growing more scarce, plays Don as smart but world-weary, deft with the tart observation (he says that Gwen “gave up drinking and took up talking”), genuinely pained as he pleads for his old life.
Bradshaw knows just how to spin a line for maximum comedic effect, and she makes the audience delight in Alice’s spot-on observations. As Avery, Langs conveys the cocky self-assurance of youth, the idea that these older women can’t possibly get how her generation’s relationships work, until that universal experience of heartbreak kicks her behind.
Lowe and Matthews, opposites physically and (in this case) stylistically, create richly detailed central characters. Petite and intense, Lowe’s Gwen conveys the jittery unease of a woman fighting to resist the seduction of her old friend alcohol, as well as the defensiveness of a woman who feels judged by others — and by herself.
Lanky and lovely, Matthews plays Catherine as a smart woman coolly accustomed to admiration and control. So when she seizes the day and Don then tries playing Pygmalion with her old-new beau, she’s more than a little flummoxed that this not-so-simple relationship is turning problematic.
Wearing his set designer’s hat (he’s also a Carbonell-winning actor and playwright), Michael McKeever has created a handsome, multi-level home for Alice as well as two yards, the one belonging to Don and Gwen untidy and dotted with little-boy toys, Alice’s with a grill in need of cleaning and an inviting swing hanging from a tree limb. Hovering over everything are four ladders symbolizing the individual journeys of the play’s women.
Costume designer Meylin Rojas, lighting designer Rebecca Montero and Meltzer, who doubles as sound designer, artfully help realize class, character and mood. Meltzer bridges scenes with the jazzy sounds and illuminating lyrics of another observant woman, Joni Mitchell. Which seems, as does so much about Zoetic’s Rapture, Blister, Burn, exactly right.
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If You Go
What: Zoetic Stage’s ‘Rapture, Blister, Burn’ by Gina Gionfriddo.
Where: Carnival Studio Theater, Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday, through Jan. 31.
Information: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.