Fresh off the announcement that it will be awarded a well-deserved Regional Theater Tony at the annual awards ceremony next week, Huntington Theater Company is currently presenting “Rapture, Blister, Burn” by Gina Gionfriddo, a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Drama (as was her “Becky Shaw” back in 2009, also performed at Huntington). As directed by Huntington’s Artistic Director Peter DuBois, who has collaborated with Gionfriddo in the past, it’s an intelligent and funny take on women’s having it all, or not. The title comes from a song by the rock band Hole and Courtney Love, described as a “wound-licking anthem”, “Use Once and Destroy”, which says “I went down for the remains/sort through all your blues and stains/take your rapture blister burns/stand in line, it’s not your turn…I went down to rescue you/it’s the emptiness that’s all you have left”. This refers to the stories of two women who made radically different choices in their earlier lives. Catherine Croll (Kate Shindle) chose a high-powered career; Gwen Harper (Annie McNamara) chose marriage and family. They meet up twelve years after those choices were made.
At happy hour, these two women and two others, Catherine’s mother Alice (Nancy E. Carroll) and Gwen’s babysitter Avery Willard (Shannon Esper) discuss how women’s roles have changed in the last few decades (and not). If the debate sounds a bit familiar, Gionfriddo herself admits to an (unintended) homage to Wendy Wassermann’s 1988 work, “The Heidi Chronicles”. In Catherine’s assessment, “in a relationship between two people, you can’t both go first”, which may explain her previous career track and her feelings that she’s going to miss having a family once her mother is gone; as her mother puts it, “life begins when your mother dies”. In Gwen’s view, “choices have consequences” about the life not lived. As the young Avery sees it, either choice has its pitfalls: “you either have a career and end up lonely and sad, or you have a family and end up lonely and sad?” The sole male character in the play is Gwen’s husband Don (Timothy John Smith), who happens to have been Catherine’s boyfriend back in grad school. It’s a rather contrived setup, but if you forgive Gionfriddo her convenient structure, you’ll find it’s well worth the journey. Along the way, there are hilarious putdowns of the likes of Rousseau and Dr. Phil, as well as Phyllis Schlafly, though she gets a surprisingly balanced treatment by the end of the evening, despite the central thrust of the play. Before this quartet of women are finished dissecting the feminist mystique, they’ve argued about integrity vs. manipulation, personal mythologies without any basis in fact, and the wisdom of embracing mediocrity. If this sounds too academic, have no fear. Whenever the work threatens to get too heavy, there’s a devastating one-liner at the ready.
Happily, this cast is also readily adept at hurling those zingers, from the concept of outsourcing the sentimental side of relationships to the influence of porn. Carroll’s non-verbal reaction to the porn discussion alone is worth the price of admission, but her delivery of many of the play’s best lines is priceless. Shindle, McNamara, Esper, and even Smith each get her or his chance to shine as well, with painstaking attention to detail (such as McNamara’s note-taking with a pencil vs. Esper’s use of her iPad). The technical crew also share that eye for detail, from the brilliant weathered cedar-shingled Scenic Design by Alexander Dodge (a Tony nominee for the Huntington-originated “Present Laughter”), to the Costume Design by Mimi O’Donnell, Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter (a Tony winner himself for last season’s “Peter and the Starcatcher” on Broadway), and Sound Design by M.L. Dogg .
Huntington Theater Company has chosen a worthy closer to a very distinguished year. “Rapture, Blister, Burn” is cause for rejoicing, with its rapturous wordplay, blistering humor and burning ideals. It’s easily the most enjoyable seminar on living and loving that you’ll experience anywhere this season.