In theory, Gina Gionfriddo’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist play “Rapture, Blister, Burn” sounds like homework — four women from three generations debate feminist theory and interrogate their own life choices in a women’s studies class on stage — but in practice, it’s a thought-provoking and darkly funny long, hard look at how wide the gulf often is between the ideal life educated middle-class white women have promised themselves (fulfilling career, romantic relationship, devoted children, financial security) and life’s messy, sometimes disappointing realities.
“Rapture, Blister, Burn” opened the new season yesterday at The Bard’s Town Theatre, located upstairs from the Highlands pub on Bardstown Road. Producing director Doug Schutte and his company have been producing intelligent, thought-provoking newer plays of late, and this season also includes William Missouri Downs’ “The Exit Interview,” which enjoyed a rolling premiere through the National New Play Network last year.
Nobody’s going broke these days promising to reveal the secret to having it all. Right now, it’s Sheryl Sandberg’s corporate ambition memoir “Lean In.” A few years ago, it was Lori Gottlieb pleading to “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.” Gionfriddo’s play doesn’t promise any such pat answers for Catherine (Amy Steiger), the unmarried academic with the hot-shot job who wishes she had a family. Her old roommate Gwen (Rachel White) took the opposite route, dropping out to marry and have kids with Catherine’s old boyfriend Don (Schutte, who also directs), but she finds herself unhappy in her forties, too.
Each reveals her deep disatisfaction while discussing feminist texts in Catherine’s summer class that also includes her seventy-year-old mother Alice (Laurene Scalf) and Gwen’s undergraduate babysitter Avery (Victoria Reibel). The intergenerational discourse in these scenes is more than historical framework — both youngest and oldest in the room functions as truth-teller at different points for Gwen and Catherine, who are stuck in the middle and confused as hell about how to proceed.
Over the course of the play, everyone’s ideals take a hit. This play is, in part, a dialog between theory and the primary text — just as watching “Halloween” through a feminist theory lens is a different experience from appreciating “Halloween” for its thrills and chills alone, a woman’s life decisions looks one way through the theoretical lens, conservative or progressive, than they do to the woman herself. This theme is illustrated particularly well in the about-face Avery experiences as she starts applying theory to her own Millennial dating life, which, as it turns out, isn’t as free-wheeling as she thought it would be.
Though pacing (especially scene transitions, which were handled a bit abruptly with light cues) and delivery were a bit rocky on opening night, the cast delivers strong performances. Steiger is especially well-cast, and not only because her bio notes that she, like Catherine, is also “an unmarried feminist college professor,” but for the right blend of hyper-intellectualization and self-deprecation she brings to the role. Schutte plays porn-addled pothead Don with just enough charm to make it plausible for him to appeal to Catherine. Though White is obviously a bit younger than Schutte and Steiger, she lends Gwen a suitable dignity even when she’s making an utter fool of herself. Scalf turns in a slyly low-key performance that balances nicely with Reibel’s large and pitch-perfect portrayal of the incredulous, disgusted Avery. Both offer significant moments of levity to what could have otherwise been a dreary play about unhappy lives.
This is a strong season opening for The Bard’s Town Theatre, which continues to seek out strong plays (like last season’s “Rx” and “Reasons to Be Happy”) that ask tough questions about what it means to be content and fulfilled in the 21st century. “Rapture, Blister, Burn” runs through March 30.