At the heart of Gina Gionfriddo’s smart, funny, and uncompromising 2012 play Rapture, Blister, Burn is a love triangle fueled by angst. Neither rock-star academic Catherine (Laura Ekstrand), wife/mother/homemaker Gwen (Nicole Callender), nor ambitionless pot-smoking porn-addict Don (Harry Patrick Christian) are content with their place in life or how they got there, and all seem to believe that navigating their torrid intersection of romance anew might lead to an awakening. The three were friends in graduate school where Catherine and Don dated before she followed a fellowship to London, opening the door for Gwen and Don to start the relationship that would lead to their marriage. Now all are in their forties, and all are embroiled in the forty-something existential curiosity that gives occasion to Gionfriddo’s exciting play.
This persistent volatility should make for a bracing evening, but under the direction of David Christopher, Dreamcatcher Repertory Theater’s production never reaches the heights of tension, comedy, and heart that run throughout Gionfriddo’s script. Jessica O’Hara-Baker as Avery shines in a cast otherwise over-matched by Gionfriddo’s complex and nuanced characters. What we get is a surface reading of the play, with little insight into the depths of these characters’ emotional struggles. As a result, the play seems a talky think piece on the history of feminism and its practical challenges rather than a play about fully realized people struggling to understand their challenging journeys through the gray areas of their lives.
Luckily, Gionfriddo’s script can hold its own against some questionable casting and directing decisions. It is regularly funny, and if Dreamcatcher’s cast leans a bit too much on the punch lines, they should at least be commended for not letting the humor escape. So too is the intellectual stimulation of the play largely unavoidable. Gionfriddo and her protagonist dive eagerly into a number of thorny feminist debates, refusing to treat feminism as a unified and unassailable ideal. Instead, Rapture, Blister, Burn’s feminism is conflicted, contentious, and more invested in productive debate than any hastily and poorly constructed universal. At the very least, Rapture, Blister, Burn succeeds in asking us productively and provocatively how society’s gendered expectations can wreak havoc on personal satisfaction and interpersonal relationships.