Critic's PickRapture, Blister, Burn, Gina Gionfriddo’s 2013 Pulitzer runner-up in its regional premiere at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, features an unusual love triangle. Cathy (Corinne Mohlenhoff) and Gwen (Jen Joplin) were college roommates, and Gwen was in love with Don (Charlie Clark). Cathy and Don were drinking buddies back in the day, full of intellectual debate and personal sparring. Two decades later, Cathy has become a renowned academic, publishing studies of feminism and pornography; Gwen is a housewife — and married to Don. Neither woman finds her present life very satisfying; Don, an unambitious college dean, tolerates his marriage to nervous, talkative Gwen by smoking dope and watching Internet porn. But he’s attracted to the possibility of rekindling his relationship with intellectual Cathy.
Framing this trio are women from prior and subsequent generations: Cathy’s pragmatic but old-school mother Alice (Patricia Linhart) and Avery (Hannah Sawicki), a bright, uninhibited college student who has been Don and Gwen’s babysitter. (They have two children who we hear much about but never meet.) Alice has suffered a mild heart attack, an event that has brought Cathy back to the college town, fretting about her mother’s mortality and her own unattached state.
Don and Cathy resume their old flirtatious ways. She’s offered the chance to teach a summer seminar which ends up enrolling two students, Gwen and Avery. Their discussions range across the history of 20th-century feminism and how it played out in pop culture, especially movies and in the philosophizing of ultra-conservative feminist opponent Phyllis Schlafly, a prominent figure in women’s issues during the 1960s and 1970s.
Cathy’s seminar and the ensuing debate is Gionfriddo’s clever device to bring forth issues that are epitomized in these women’s lives and conduct.
Avery is a free-spirited young woman who has been involved with her filmmaker boyfriend in making reality-based documentaries featuring her as an “agent provocateur” who stirs things up. As it happens, that’s precisely the role she plays as she interacts with the other women, questioning and challenging their perspectives while her own evolve in some interesting directions. Their lively debates, usually capped by Alice delivering a round of cocktails as well as her own point of view from an older generation, offer a fascinating survey of feminist thought and how it takes shape in everyday life. It also leads to some surprising conclusions as the plot of Rapture, Blister, Burn unfolds.
The play’s title, a distillation of its evolution of emotion and circumstance, is a lyric from an obscure Rock tune, and it’s an apt précis of the story’s arc. The script could easily have descended into a soap opera-like drama or a silly comedy, but it does not. Gionfriddo is a masterful writer of witty, provocative dialogue, and her characters are painfully real, even as they embody various points along the feminist spectrum. Don could have been a straw man, but he’s a self-described “charming devil” who has his flaws but is likeable and sympathetic.
This is the kind of play that ETC’s artistic director D. Lynn Meyers excels at staging, and she has assembled a flawless cast to bring Rapture, Blister, Burn to life. Mohlenhoff, a regular at Cincinnati Shakespeare, conveys Cathy’s intellect with ease, but also imbues her with a kind of vulnerability and yearning for change that makes sense. Joplin creates a woman who has found her own way but now doubts her path, struggling with her demons and decisions with deep emotion and exploding at one point with angst and pain that feels completely real. Linhart, who teaches voice at CCM, glides above the fray as Alice, calm and confident in her sometimes antiquated but strangely relevant observations. And Sawicki’s Avery is pitch perfect as a voice that questions, asserts and speaks candidly without the baggage of adulthood or responsibility. Avery has some of the show’s most amusing lines and observations, and Sawicki delivers them with skillful but natural timing. The role of Don is a nice fit for Clark, who can convey frustration, zeal, fear and enthusiasm with quick facial expressions and physical postures. He’s great fun to watch as he navigates the minefield of this story.
With Meyers directing the opening shows of ETC’s season (Other Desert Cities had a successful run in September), we have seen an exemplary array of local actors featured in excellent scripts. Meyers has an uncanny ability to pick shows that work well and please her audiences. This show features some potent blistering and burning, but I suspect most who see it will remember the rapture.
RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN, presented by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, continues through Oct. 27.