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Rapture, Blister, Burn
by Gina Gionfriddo
Directed by Stephen Peirick
West End Players Guild

November 14, 2015

Nicole Angeli, Elizabeth Van Pelt, Mara Bollini, Donna Weinsting Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Nicole Angeli, Elizabeth Van Pelt, Mara Bollini, Donna Weinsting
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

You know a play is going to raise eyebrows when it contains phrases such as “Phyllis Schlafly was right.” There’s more to that sentence than you might, think, though, as espoused by the characters in Gina Gionfreddo’s Pultizer Prize nominated play Rapture, Blister, Burn.  A confrontational and thought-provoking look at various schools of thought in the history of feminism, as well as how those ideas play out in modern culture, this fascinating comedy is currently being presented in an entertaining, well-cast production by West End Players Guild.

The story follows two former grad school roommates and their widely diverging lives in the years since graduation. Catherine (Nicole Angeli) is now a celebrated academic and feminist writer who has published books and appeared on talk shows. While Catherine is successful in her career but has never married, her friend Gwen (Mara Bollini) took the opposite route–she married Catherine’s ex-boyfriend, college dean Don (Jeff Kargus), and became a stay-at-home mom. Now, years later, Catherine has moved close by to look after her mother Alice (Donna Weinsting), who is recovering from a recent heart attack, and old issues between Catherine, Gwen, and Don are brought back up, with Catherine and Gwen each observing the other’s life and wondering if maybe she should have taken a different route. Meanwhile, Catherine is teaching a seminar at her house conveniently attended by Gwen (who’s trying to finish her graduate degree) and Gwen’s recently fired babysitter, the younger and more confrontational Avery (Elizabeth Van Pelt). In between discussions of such disparate thinkers as Betty Friedan, the aforementioned Schlafly, and Dr. Phil, the issues of what it means to be a woman relating to men in today’s society are played out in various increasingly complicated ways.

This is a wordy play, occasionally coming across more as an academic discussion than a show. Although the conceit of the seminar is there, it seems slightly contrived that the only two students would be Gwen and Avery, with occasional commentary by Alice, who supplies the martinis and adds to the dialogue with her tales of marriage and motherhood in an earlier generation. As funny as it is, with sharp comedy and well-drawn characters, it’s also an extremely dense play that brings up some serious issues for thought and discussion. Its conclusions may be controversial as well, and the fact that the only man in the play is the occasionally charming but admittedly aimless Don makes one wonder what the playwright is really saying about men. Although it does try to provide some answers, this play raises a lot more questions, and that’s probably the point. With all the conflicting messages, what’s a modern woman to do? Is it better to have a career or a family, or can a woman have both successfully? Is that even a realistic or desired goal to pursue? Issues of career ambition, sexual politics, and societal stereotypes and expectations are explored and illustrated, with some topics getting more weight than others.

The cast here is excellent, and a key factor in conveying the messages of this play without having it seem like a lecture. Angeli is engagingly sympathetic as the conflicted Catherine, who projects an air of knowledge but is soon shown to have more questions than answers. She works well against the equally excellent Bollini as the weary “super mom”, Gwen, who comes across as somewhat stuffy and controlling at first but who also portrays a believable journey of self-discovery. Both actresses portray convincing chemistry with Kargus’s amiable but unambitious Don. The best comic moments in the play are delivered by Weinsting as the loving but opinionated Alice, and especially the hilarious Van Pelt as the young, outgoing and outspoken Avery. I especially was convinced by the bond that develops between Avery and Catherine.

The production is well-staged by director Stephen Peirick, who also designed the detailed, two-level set that represents Gwen and Don’s house (on the floor in front of the stage), and Alice’s place (on stage). There are also character appropriate costumes by Tracey Newcomb and proficient lighting by Amy Ruprecht and sound by Mary Beth Winslow. The technical aspects along with the staging work to establish the realistic atmosphere of the production, putting us into these characters’ world in a convincing way.

Whether or not you agree with all the conclusions in Rapture, Blister, Burn, there’s a lot to think about here. It’s all presented in an entertaining and challenging tone by West End Players Guild’s excellent cast. A variety of viewpoints are examined frankly and vividly here, and it’s sure to be the starter of some fascinating conversations.

Mara Bollini, Jeff Kargus, Nicole Angeli Photo by John Lamb West End Players' Guild

Mara Bollini, Jeff Kargus, Nicole Angeli
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players’ Guild

Rapture, Blister, Burn is being presented by West End Players Guild at Union Avenue Christian Church until November 22, 2015.

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