At Great Risk of “Rapture, Blister, Burn”

Had I known I could work out my mother issues by reviewing plays, I would have saved money on therapy. Gina Gionfriddo’s new play (at Playwrights Horizons through June 24; directed by Peter DuBois) webs the lives of several disparate women, and one hapless man, around family, career and satisfaction.

Amy Brenneman plays a woman who has left the big city for life on a smaller scale as she returns to her hometown to live with her whip smart and endearing mother–oh my god, wait. That was Judging Amy.

Let’s see. In Rapture, Blister, Burn, Amy Brenneman plays a woman who has left the big city for life on a smaller scale as she… Ah well.

Amy Brenneman is magnetic as Catherine. She and her dynamite, elderly, no-fear mother, Alice (played by Beth Dixen), are the only characters with whom I’d want to have a cocktail. And there are indeed many opportunities to share drinks, opinions and secrets here–all while discussing the successes and failures of the second wave of feminism.

Having come home to teach and take care of Alice–leaving, presumably, an unholy share of sadness and desperation behind in New York–Cathy conducts a seminar in her mother’s home for two students: her old grad school classmate and once-romantic-rival Gwen (Kellie Overbey) and Gwen’s daring, liberated, confused babysitter, Avery (Virginia Kull).

With Alice participating in the drinking and the ruminating, we get the whole garbled, messy, contradictory and, in so many ways, by now, cliché offerings of The Women’s Movement from four women of three generations. Did it free women to explore their sexuality, individuality, and opportunities to live outside domesticity? Or does it steal happiness from women, perpetuating the lie that a good career can replace, or at least postpone, a husband and family?

Every woman I know understands at some point the vicious joke of Women’s Liberation is that we cannot have it all without great sacrifice. Many, however, like Gwen, can’t say it out loud.

So should we be surprised that an aging and old-fashioned mother; her uber-driven, single, lonely 42-year-old daughter; the recovering alcoholic, chatty, bitter, stay-at-home mom; and the “easy,” super-smart-but-willing-to-throw-it-away-for-a-boy 21-year-old co-ed have experiences and views that clash into each other’s with the silent power of a brewing storm?

For the first half of the play I craved a turning point. Four women discussing how Women’s Liberation has either cursed them or freed them or some of both is how all of my Moms Nights Out end up. I needed something from the stage to shake me out of my increasingly morbid identification with these women–you were right, Betty Friedan, you were right! I DO want something more than my husband and my children and my home!

And just how Don (Lee Tergesen)–the clearly unworthy center of the escalating tension between Cathy and Gwen–got to be in that unlikely spot is the mixer in this dirty martini.

Women expend tremendous otherwise useful energy thinking about the lives we could have or should have been living while we were, instead, following our destinies. At least the play says so. The only male character, Don, is the only character not aching for the “life not lived,” as Gwen puts it. But how many of us would grab a dangerously seductive opportunity to switch it up a bit?

Gwen’s ambition is the subterranean basement in her house of disappointment–Don is a loser; her “marriage fix” baby didn’t deliver the goods; her favored son, Julian, will eventually leave her. The deal with the devil comes in the form of a drunk phone call from Cathy. From that conversation, which has taken place before the play begins, Gwen maps out a new life for herself. And Cathy. And Don. And Julian. And Alice.

Remarkably, everyone is willing to move into their new places in this “what might have been” scenario. Predictably, the reality of being responsible for other people’s happiness, or even one’s own, is crushing. Leave the specter of the past’s promises alone on its high shelf. To bring it down is to risk rapture, blister and burn.

The fallout is brutal and comforting, both. For Cathy, a new beginning with the old trappings, once again, is in order. Feminism, life, necessity collide or, at least, have colluded. And isn’t that all of our stories–what is freedom but to lift the veil on sweet, cruel irony? To be free we must embrace our limitations; to be happy standing still, we must realize we have wings.

Like Cathy, Gwen, Alice and Avery, we define ourselves with the decisions we’ve made. And we live usefully within them, or we learn to live with a regret so deep we are swaddled in it.

We call it what serves us: feminism or fate. Either way, we move on to the next right thing with hope and the misguided belief we can go back again. Only a redirection from the loving and sage Tyne Daly might otherwise change our minds.

I was given tickets for review purposes from the wonderful people at Playtime! and through my friends at MamaDrama. Opinions are, as always, my own. 

Playtime! provides parents with affordable, incredible childcare while they attend remarkable New York City theater. While I saw the show, my two girls enjoyed games, art, play and snacks with the talented and kind artist-sitters from Sitters Studio. We all had an enlightening day. 

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2 Responses to At Great Risk of “Rapture, Blister, Burn”

  1. lauren says:

    awesome review. and an even more awesome idea….playtime! what a wonderful situation.

  2. 1. I’m totally jealous that you got to see this play!!
    2. Thank you for an honest and enlightening review. I say Amy B. on a talk show the other day and wondered about this play. Living in AK, I won’t get to find out…maybe ever. Thank you!

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