Twenty-five years ago, Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles” was introduced in a workshop production at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
But the question Wasserstein posed in her Pulitzer Prize-winning script, about whether modern women could truly “have it all,” still hits a nerve and triggers fierce debate.
Recent studies and influential magazine articles concur that essentially no, few women can be fulfilled on all fronts. For many (if not all), something has to go — whether it be pursuing an ambitious career, nurturing children or tending a marriage.
Gina Gionfriddo’s incisive, entertaining “Rapture, Blister, Burn” at ACT Theatre is a seriocomic conversation (and conversation-starter) about the roles and priorities for women of different generations — and a man caught between them.
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Catherine (Kirsten Potter) is a single, superstar author-academic, a trendy expert on deconstructing pornography. She returns home at 42 to be with her amiable ailing mother, Alice (Priscilla Lauris), and reunites with a grad-school pal, homemaker Gwen (a too-strident Kathryn Van Meter), and former flame Don (Jeffrey Fracé), a charming underachiever married to Gwen.
By design, “Rapture, Blister, Burn” (the title quotes a Courtney Love song) puts articulate, self-analytical characters through a lot of rhetorical paces.
Gionfriddo devises a revealing if unlikely college seminar Catherine teaches at home. Gwen and her sassy-smart former baby-sitter, the 20-something Avery (a sexily ironic Mariel Neto), are the only students. Mom (the delightfully unflappable Lauris) serves the cocktails.
The class is a convenient forum for discussions on the history and resonance of feminism — including a surprisingly sympathetic review of Phyllis Schlafly’s anti-feminist philosophy — and murky chatter about the semiotics of slasher films.
Once the attraction (inevitably) rekindles between vulnerable Catherine and the Peter Pan-ish stoner Don, the class becomes more like a bare-all encounter group.
Catherine shares her ambivalence about her choices, which have kept her independent but lonely. And threatened Gwen defends her chosen role of stay-at-home mother and frustrated-but-loyal wife.
Under Anita Montgomery’s fluid, funny direction, the cast handles the script’s wordiness with aplomb (Potter especially), expressing how women of several eras agree and part ways in their views of men, sex, work and how some things change while other things (love, heartache) don’t so much.
“Rapture, Blister, Burn” is blatantly schematic, with people often leaving rooms so others can have one-on-one confrontations. But it is also bracingly Shavian as a candid dialectic about the challenges of modern womanhood, and manhood.
With such self-absorbed characters, the play engaged my head more than my heart. And it’s clear the action exists in a social strata of middle-class, educated white people, with more options than others with less money and mobility.
Also, the play ignores the women who’ve managed to balance high-achieving careers with domesticity — though I doubt U.S. Sen. Patty Murray or author J.K. Rowling would say it’s easy.
Gionfriddo is far too smart to close with everyone finding balance and contentment. Ambivalence is the new normal and in the end, she suggests, Catherine and the rest of us will have to make the best of it.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org