By Ruth Ross
Although it has been 40 years, the very vocal and public spat between the eminent feminist Betty Friedan and her nemesis, the conservative anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, feels like it took place eons ago. Has the argument over whether women has the choice of career vs. family been resolved? Well, according to Gina Gionfriddo's smart comedic drama (or dramatic comedy), Rapture, Blister, Burn, now receiving its New Jersey première at Dreamcatcher Rep in Summit, it still rages, as seen in the lives of rock star feminist academic Catherine Croll and her graduate school roommate Gwen Harper, now a stay-at-home mom in a small New England college town.
Although the time period is not specified (other than "Summer"), by my calculation the action takes place sometime in the early 21st century (25 years, according to the characters, after Friedan and Schlafley argued the point), so I am not certain it is a commentary on feminism today, but more a wry, clever wink and nod about thinking the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. (Top photo by Steve McIntyre)
In response to her mother Alice's recent heart attack and facing being alone should her mother die, Catherine has taken a leave of absence from her professorship in New York City to spend the summer in her rural home town. Once there, she re-establishes her relationship with Gwen and Gwen's husband Don, who was Catherine's beau until Gwen "stole" him away. When Don gets her a position teaching a course in summer school, the trio cooks up a scheme whereby Gwen and older son Julian will go to New York so she can pursue her unfinished graduate degree and her son will study acting, while Catherine and Don will move in together and look after the Harper's three-year-old son Devin. This harebrained arrangement will allow each woman to experience what she gave up when she chose the path for her adult life. The wrench in the gear is pot-smoking, hard-drinking, Internet porn-addicted Don, whom Catherine thinks she can get to "aspire" to the life she thinks he should be leading (and wants to lead). The results are both hilarious and sobering.
Gionfriddo's addition of the 21-year-old student Avery Willard and Alice, Catherine's 70-something mother offers two refreshing "takes" on the role of women in modern society. As the smartest one of the bunch Avery's observations and comments bring this play closer to the ideas floating around when it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2013.
Once again, David Christopher shows us what a fine director he is. The 10 scene changes occur fluidly, and although the actors may change costumes, they stay in character—always dynamic and interesting—at all times. Of course, Christopher has first-rate actors with whom to work; the Dreamcatcher Rep ensemble meshes so seamlessly and appear so comfortable with each other that the relationships they portray are always natural and convincing.
Laura Ekstrand (left) is marvelous as Catherine, spouting opinions about women and pornography with élan but not too invested in them to be attracted to Don and the family life she imagines with him. She is clearly a woman who knows her academic field, but not her self. Nicolle Callender's Gwen (top photo, right) is all suppressed rage, rage at having to push her husband to succeed, dismay that, despite choosing motherhood and family, she finds herself envying Catherine. When she boils over during a seminar she has signed up to take with Catherine (and Avery) and spills secrets of her marriage, she really gains our sympathy. And Harry Patrick Christian's college dean Don (above, right) is a slacker, par excellence. With his easy-going ways and slow speech, Christian telegraphs the man's lack of ambition, which is far more evident to the audience than to Catherine who thinks he just needs someone to encourage him. Christian's interactions with Callender and Ekstrand are totally believable; we may even feel sorry for him as Catherine tries to work her magic at making him over.
Stealing the show are Jessica O'Hara-Baker (Far right) as outspoken Avery and Noreen Farley (center, with Ekstrand) as the more reserved Alice. O’Hara-Baker is the quintessential "liberated" woman of the 21st century—empowered, candid, bluntly stating her opinions and not really afraid of men (for the most part). Dressed in a variety of outfits totally appropriate for her age, O'Hara-Baker's delivery is natural and hilarious. She's one chick to be reckoned with! Farley's Alice is more Phyllis Schlafly-like, spouting a more conservative view of femininity (to the audience's delight), but proud of her daughter and intrigued by Avery. Alice's insistence on martinis at five is quite droll, even as the enormous amount of alcohol consumption by Catherine and Don is a troubling red flag of ensuing disaster.
Superior production values are evident in Bridget Santiello's set (love Alice's old-fashioned living room), Zach Pizza's atmospheric lighting, Laura Ekstrand's choice of attire for each character, and Jeff Knapp's savvy selection of songs reminiscent of the feminist "revolution." It is a joy to hear them once again. (L-R: Ekstrand, Christian, Farley)
Rapture, Blister, Burn traces the arc of two women as they attempt to navigate the world of choice. Instead of "greener grass" on the other side of the fence, they should have heeded the advice, "Be careful what you wish for." What may, at first, be rapturous, can blister and ultimately burn you. The journeys taken by these seven characters may be circuitous and confounding, but ultimately their choices are best for each of them. Go see Rapture, Blister, Burn and see if you agree. But you have only one more weekend to do it.
Rapture, Blister, Burn runs through May 3 at the Oakes Center, 120 Morris Ave., Summit. For information and tickets, call the box office at 908.514.9654 or visit www.dreamcatcherrep.org on line. There will be a talkback after the 2 PM matinee on Sunday, April 26.
Other 4 Photos by David Miceli.