Writer, Gina Gionfriddo, is known for penning episodes of dark series, including “Law & Order,” “House of Cards” and “Cold Case.” Her thoughtfully funny comedy, Rapture, Blister, Burn was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and its plot feels very different than her television work.
In the new staging at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, there are no murder mysteries, political manipulation or intense trial sequences. Instead, the story looks at the lives of several women.
Catherine Croll (Paige Lindsey White) is a successful author and media studies professor who has remained friends with a couple she knew from when she was younger, Gwen (Sandy Campbell) and Don Harper (Shawn Law). The three of them live in a New England college town and are all suffering from personal problems.
Gwen and Don have completely lost their spark and Catherine has not found love with anyone. Although Catherine is close with her mother, Alice (Susan Denaker), she regrets not settling down with a man and starting a family.
Catherine soon starts teaching a summer class about culture. Her only students are Gwen as well as Gwen’s former millennial nanny, Avery Willard (Jennifer Paredes). The three of them get into extensive conversations about feminism, horror movies and even porn.
If the synopsis sounds like there is a lot to take in that is because there is. Gionfriddo’s dialogue, especially in Act 1, covers a variety of different subjects. There is a realistic quality to hearing discussions where the topic can switch in a matter of seconds.
Everything that occurs before intermission is highly engrossing. Comprised of a only a handful of lengthy scenes, the playwright makes each woman flawed in a humane way.
Conceptually, Catherine comes across as a cliché. She is an example of the prosperous woman who seems to have it all professionally, even though her private life is more problematic.
And yet, the writer and White make Catherine significantly more affecting than her character description suggests. Catherine has deep regrets, but she can be charming, touchingly sensitive and naturally sexy.
Gwen isn’t the warmest person, but her lifestyle feels painfully real. Audience members who are friends with people who create their own misfortune will be grinding their teeth at Gwen’s behavior. Campbell does let viewers feel her inner turmoil in a sad monologue about her dissatisfaction with her existence. It’s a rare moment of deep empathy for an unlikeable housewife.
If Avery appears a bit too obnoxious early on, she does come into her own after joining Catherine’s class. Avery (wearing hipster clothing from Jennifer Brawn Gittings) proves to be smarter than she initially seems to be. This is a testament to Gionfriddo’s characterization and Paredes’s perceptive acting.
Also subverting expectations is Alice. She could have been the stereotypical parent giving words of wisdom, but some of her advice to Catherine is downright immoral. Denaker make sure Alice never turns into a cuddly caricature.
Artistic Director of the San Diego Rep, Sam Woodhouse, keeps his vision grounded to not draw attention away from the exchanges. That is for the best, since a good chunk of Gionfriddo’s prose centers around dialogue.
If Act 1 can be an invigorating experience, Act 2 is far less focused. Catherine’s class becomes significantly less essential to the tale. That is a shame, since lively debates between Gwen, Catherine, and Avery could have been the focus of the entire evening. Instead, much of the remaining running time is only about Catherine.
Even a few of the jokes are shallower than what comes before intermission. A groan worthy example is when Gwen says that she thinks her son is gay, because he loves musicals. This “knee slapper” comes across as a dated and narrow-minded observation in 2016.
Having said that,Rapture, Blister, Burn does eventually get back on track in the climax and resolution. Catherine’s arc leads to a situation that will cause many to get choked up.
Shortly afterwards is a conclusion where all the elements of theatre subtly come together. Kevin Anthenill’s original music, Lonnie Alcaraz’s lighting and Woodhouse’s blocking create a sort of grand finale with a healthy dose of emotional release.
Rough patches exist in Gionfriddo’s narrative, but there is plenty to recommend. In spite of signs from set designer, Robin Sanford Roberts, that say “Home Sweet Home,” the people at the heart of Rapture, Blister, Burn are anything but “sweet.” That is part of the appeal of Gionfriddo’s warts and all tribute to womanhood.