RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN at the Goodman Theatre, Review – Women Who Want It All

 

Playwright Gina Gionfriddo’s smart, wonderful, and extremely funny play Rapture, Blister, Burn now receiving its Chicago premiere at the Goodman Theatre is essentially a comedy/satire involving contemporary feminism.

 

(L to R) Cassidy Slaughter-Mason (Avery Willard), Jennifer Coombs (Catherine Croll) and Mary Ann Thebus (Alice Croll)

 

Admittedly I cringed a bit when I initially learned what the topic of this play was. It’s not that I have anything against feminism. I really have no opinions on it. But as a theatregoer and critic I’ve seen way too many boring plays that have been centered on any kind of subject ending with an “ism”. We go to the theatre to be entertained by a play instead of being lectured by it.

 

But Ms. Gionfriddo is such a gifted writer that she managed to make this piece both an entertaining character-driven play and an intensely smart inspection of contemporary female issues at the same time.

 

It’s no surprise that Ms. Gionfriddo spent many of her formative years writing for the TV series Law & Order (in addition to many other TV shows such as House of Cards and Borgia) as this play has an overall humorous TV-sitcom quality feel to it. She mixes in snappy sharp dialogue with some delightful comedic moments while simultaneously also providing us with some really insightful discussions on the changing roles of women in society that were extremely thought-provoking. And thankfully none of the feminist discussions felt preachy. Everything came out naturally.

 

(L to R) Mary Ann Thebus (Alice Croll), Karen Janes Woditsch (Gwen Harper), Cassidy Slaughter-Mason (Avery Willard) and Jennifer Coombs (Catherine Croll)

 

The story is centered on Catherine Croll (Jennifer Coombs) who has returned to her hometown to take care of her elderly mother Alice (Mary Ann Thebus) after she suffered a recent mild heart attack. Catherine has been away from home for well over a decade by this point, living a single carefree life in New York City. She has managed to forge a prominent career for herself as an expert on feminism by getting her PHD, working hard and becoming a successful author of several books, an in-demand conference lecturer, and as a guest on cable-news discussion shows.

 

But now that she’s back home and dealing with the possibility that her own loving mother might soon pass away she rethinks her youthful idealistic decisions in life - ideas which were mostly entrenched in her by the various feminists she studied all the way through grad school. Despite all her success Catherine suddenly feels unfulfilled in life as she begins to realize that she’s getting to an age where being married and raising a family might never actually happen for her.

 

And then we are introduced to Catherine’s former boyfriend Don Harper (Mark L. Montgomery). They dated back in grad school, but when Catherine returned home from studying abroad in London for a semester she not only found him in the arms of another woman, but “that woman” was her best friend Gwen (Karen Janes Woditsch). Now that many years have passed by Gwen and Don have two children together and appear, at first glance, to have the life that Catherine had given up on many years ago.

 

As it turns out Don is a dean at a local college and has somehow managed to get Catherine a teaching position there during her stay back home. Catherine starts a summer session on feminist theories only to discover that she only has two students, one of which is Gwen, and the other being Gwen’s brash, blunt, and free-spirited babysitter Avery (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason).

 

In Catherine’s first class Gwen reveals how unhappy she is in her marriage. She fumes about Don’s addiction to internet pornography and pot. She also feels constricted by their constant lack of money and lack of desire to advance in life. Gwen regrets giving up her grad school studies way back in the day so she could settle down with Don and raise a family.

 

Since both Catherine and Gwen think they want each other’s lives it’s not too much of a spoiler to say what happens later in the play: they trade places… Only to discover that wanting someone else’s supposed “ideal life” is not the same as actually living it. In the end they find that no one has a perfect life, that marriage is about sacrifice not empowerment, and that everyone has to make their own happiness.

 

(L to R) Mark Montgomery (Don Harper) and Karen Janes Woditsch (Gwen Harper)

 

As you can see the overall plot is a little contrived in its overall structure - I mean how many times have we seen stories where two characters switch lives? But what makes this play different from say the movie Freaky Friday is that it’s less about the switch and more about middle-aged discontentment, or as Gwen puts it, “It’s that 40-something thing when you start thinking about the life not lived.”

 

Despite the somewhat ridiculous sitcom-like structure Rapture still remains a very alluring play because it seems to highlight a very modern-day problem that we all face in trying to navigate the overwhelming demands of living in a society that seems to expect us to simultaneously have both a fulfilling career (with lots of money) and a satisfying personal life (with lots of romance) in order to be truly happy with life.

 

By not giving full weight to either Catherine or Gwen’s sides Ms. Gionfriddo seems to suggest that no one, no matter how "perfect” someone else’s life may seem on the surface, has found the perfect balance between the two. And that trying to pursue both ideals at the same time is unrealistic and will only lead to further unhappiness. There has to be sacrifices on either side of the spectrum.

 

On top of all this, Rapture also offers us a very interesting take on the changing roles and attitudes of women in society as discussed with intermingled ideas of Betty Friedan, Nancy Friday, Schlafly, Rousseau, and even good ‘ole Dr. Phil.

 

But mostly the topic is framed by the perspectives of our female characters which cover three entirely different generations. There’s Catherine’s mother Alice who is in her 80s and grew up at a time where women had little say, marriage was vital to having any sort of social life, and when men who weren’t married by the age of 30 were looked at as being sexually “defective” by women.

 

Gwen and Catherine both in their 40s grew up during the rapidly changing social environment of the feminist movement. Gwen has based her identity on her family but has no sense of worth outside of them. On the other side Catherine has the feminist empowerment of a being a successful career-driven single lady in a big city, but yet she has no one to love.

 

And then there’s Avery in her early 20s who thinks that marriage is unnecessary, that love is just a chemical reaction in the body to hormones, and that with enough money even parenting can be outsourced. Avery also defines her relationship with her boyfriend as “hooking up exclusively” and to the bewilderment of Catherine she states that “suffrage for women is so obvious and beyond debate that it’s not worth discussing”. Clearly each generation of women has had to deal with different struggles.

 

In many ways Rapture is less of what Ms. Gionfriddo herself refers to as “an inadvertent homage” to Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer-Prize winning 1988 play on feminism entitled the Heidi Chronicles than it is a 21st century update of it. In Ms. Wasserstein’s time issues like internet pornography, social media fame, or even gratuitous slasher gore flicks weren’t around, but as discussed in Rapture the politics of modern feminism have changed along with the media.

 

(L to R) Jennifer Coombs (Catherine Croll) and Mark Montgomery (Don Harper)

 

For the most part the acting in Rapture is great, but our two outside characters stood out more than the three main characters. The spunky and terrific Cassidy Slaughter-Mason played Avery with a great youthful energy that was incredibly infectious. Avery is clearly used as a plot device to provide us with a contrast to the views of her elders. Still Ms. Slaughter-Mason was so confident with her character’s intentions that she was thoroughly enjoyable to watch throughout.

 

And I can’t say enough good things about the fantastic Mary Ann Thebus. Her performance as the scatterbrained Alice Croll was downright hilarious. Ms. Thebus had perfect comic timing that brought the house down in laughter on numerous occasions. Not to mention that she gave her character just the right amount of sweetness to be absolutely loveable throughout the show. Ms. Thebus’s performance is worth the price of admission in and of itself.

 

The rest of the cast consisting of our three hapless 40-somethings leads were good, however they seemed to be lacking a bit of the nuances that would have made them more interesting to watch. This is a problem since a good majority of the play dealt with this love triangle.

 

Karen Janes Wodtish was best when she was personifying Gwen’s bossy side (the character is a mother of two young kids after all), but the actress didn’t go quite as far as I would’ve liked with Gwen’s utter desperation. The chemistry between Mark L. Montgomery as Don and Jennifer Coombs as Catherine was sub-par and so their scenes together tended to deflate all of this play’s building momentum. Coombs is also a blank slate right now. Emotionally she’s neither as vulnerable nor as eager I would’ve liked her to be.

 

To be fair I do have to point out that there was an unexpected changeover in the cast deep into the rehearsal process. The role of our main character, Catherine, was set to be played by the actress Robin Weigert. Ms. Weigert suddenly had a scheduling conflict arise only a few days before the previews officially began for the public. So Coombs had to take over this major role at the last minute.

 

Cast changes like this understandably happen in live theatre. Unfortunately it also means our three leads didn’t have enough rehearsal time to establish a deeper connection with each other. So even though our three leads were lacking the subtlety and chemistry I would have liked to have seen, they were by no means terrible given the recent cast change.

 

Overall Act One is certainly more entertaining to watch. Not only is it funnier, but the first act is all about the tantalizing open possibilities for many of the characters. Act Two, while still full of sharply written comedic dialogue, deals more with outcomes and the show in general becomes more focused on the “love-triangle” so it’s not as intriguing.

 

(L to R) Director Kimberly Senior and Cassidy Slaughter-Mason (Avery Willard) in rehearsal for Rapture Blister Burn

 

Kimberly Senior (making her Goodman Theatre debut) brings this play to life with her excellent direction. The set design by Senior’s husband Jack Magaw was cinematic in its vast realistic scope. It’s not often that I get a chance to compliment scene changes, but they were so quick and well-choreographed that I had to take note. The costumes by Emily Rebholz were spot-on for each of the characters. My only gripe is that poor Mark L. Montgomery, as Don, was forced to wear an all too obvious looking fat-suit under his clothes throughout the show. It was too distracting and completely unnecessary.

 

The title Rapture, Blister, Burn refers to lyrics in a song from the rock band Hole, and it also aptly refers to the frustration, disappointment, and yes even hurt, in trying to figure out what our goals really are in life. This admirable and enjoyable play asks some really significant questions for us to consider: what do we want out of life? Did we follow the right paths in life? And what are we relying on for our own source of happiness? These are deep questions to ponder for sure. And all this from a comedy where women drink martinis and openly discuss the politics of pornography? This is why I love theatre. I’ll drink to that!

 

Bottom Line: Rapture, Blister, Burn is recommended. Yes, the structure is contrived a bit and the love-triangle lacks any heat right now, but it’s the playful nature to this story which is keeping Rapture from drowning in its own existential contemplations. Rapture is both the perfect play for a fun “girl’s night out”, while also retaining an overall important message which is universal enough to appeal to pretty much anyone. Really it’s just a fun night of theatre and one that you definitely won’t regret seeing. 

 

RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN – The Goodman Theatre

Running Time: 2 hours. There is a 15 minute intermisson

Location: The Goodman Theatre (Albert Theatre) – 170 North Dearborn, Chicago IL, 60601

The theatre is located on Dearborn in between Lake St and Randolph St in the Loop. The Goodman is accessible by various CTA buses and trains use googlemaps.com for detailed directions. There is also a parking lot across the street. You can contact the theatre to ask about other parking options nearby.

Runs through: February 22, 2015

Curtain Times: Wednesdays – 7:30 PM, Thursdays – 2 PM & 7:30 PM (no matinee performance on Feb 19), Fridays – 8 PM, Saturdays – 2 PM & 8 PM (no matinee performance on Jan 31), Sundays – 2 PM & 7:30 PM (no evening performance on Feb 15 & 22). There are no performances on Mondays or Tuesdays with the exception of a 7:30 PM performance on Tuesday Feb. 10

Tickets: $28 - $81 and can be purchased online (see link above), in person at the Goodman Box Office, or by calling the Goodman Box Office at 312-443-3800 

Discounted Tickets: Half-price day-of-performance mezzanine tickets available at 10AM online (use promo code MEZZTIX), Student $10 tickets are available for any performance, limit four with valid student ID (promo code 10TIX), Discounted group tickets for parties of 10 or more are available by calling 312-443-3820

 

Cast includes: Jennifer Coombs (Catherine Croll), Mark L. Montgomery (Don Harper), Cassidy Slaughter-Mason (Avery Willard), Mary Ann Thebus (Alice Croll), Karen Janes Woditsch (Gwen Harper)

Photo Credits: Liz Lauren

 

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