Theater Review: 'Rapture, Blister, Burn'

Jennifer Paredes as "Avery"and Sandy Campbell as "Gwen"
Photo credit:
San Diego Repertory Theatre

There’s not a lot of rapture in Gina Gionfriddo’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated “Rapture, Blister, Burn.” But there is a fair amount of humor, nostalgia, longing and a heapin’ helpin’ of feminist theory. It plays through May 15 at San Diego Repertory Theatre.

It’s mostly a tri-generational tale of life choices made and questioned by three women and one man.

Forty-something Catherine (Paige Lindsey White) has come back home to take care of her mom Alice (Susan Denaker), who recently had a heart attack.

Catherine has been invited to dinner by her old grad school roommate Gwen (Sandy Campbell), to celebrate Catherine’s rock-star success as a career academic and her status as a “hot doomsday chick” on Bill Maher’s TV show. Catherine’s specialties are feminism and pornography; she’s penned books about phone sex and the rise of degradation as entertainment.

There’s history here: when they were roommates, Catherine was dating Don (Shawn Law). But when Catherine went off to London for a year – and refused to return when Don asked – he married Gwen (Sandy Campbell), who quit school to become the wife of the affable pot-smoking slacker who later forsook his passion – teaching – for a more lucrative but less satisfying dean job at a third-rate college.

They have two (unseen) sons, aged 3 and 13. Gwen likes motherhood, but is getting a little itchy to try something else. She says she’s happiest when she goes to New York alone with the 13-year-old to see some Broadway plays.

Catherine has chosen the other path and has never married. Now, with Alice’s mortality closer to the forefront, Catherine is beginning to question her career-girl choice. She too is wondering about “the life not lived.”

The last guest is undergrad Avery (Jenn Paredes), bringing the 20-something perspective and becoming progressively unimpressed with the choices the older women have made.

The main debate topic here is marriage vs. the single life. Feminism promised equality in marriage, but let’s face it: in practice it seldom works out that way. Can women have it all? If not, which lifestyle is “better,” or is that an unanswerable (or meaningless) question?

Maybe Avery is right to conclude (after Alice, Gwen and Catherine describe their lives) that “you either have a career and wind up lonely and sad, or you have a family and wind up lonely and sad.”

It’s a salient issue, worthy of exploration, and I would have been much happier with this play had Gionfriddo stuck with this and not tossed in extraneous issues like Catherine’s disquisition on changes in film genres from disaster to slasher to horror/torture, presumably reflecting the rise of equality between the sexes.

Even worse is the second act, where the action gets progressively less believable, when Gwen and Catherine talk of changing places: Gwen will go to New York with 13-year-old son Julian, while Don moves in with Catherine; they will take care of 3-year-old Devon. Really?

Director Sam Woodhouse has assembled a fine cast for this thought-provoking, if sometimes maddening play, spearheaded by Paredes’ acidic and very today Avery (kudos to costumer Jennifer Brawn Gittings, whose styles fit right in with the image).

Law’s slacker Don leads us to wonderful what either woman saw in this pothead/porn addict. But who can explain the ways of love?

Campbell’s Gwen and White’s Catherine are effective in portraying the advantages and difficulties inherent in each life choice. Denaker’s a joy as the elder Alice, who can say what she wants (and gets some wonderful lines).

Robin Sanford Roberts designed the spare set for this in-the-round production. Kevin Anthenill contributes fine sound and original music; and Lonnie Alcaraz’s lighting design is effective.

“Rapture, Blister, Burn” was a Pulitzer finalist in 2013, and despite its odd twists is worth seeing for the college dorm-like discussion of the living single vs. marriage debate.

The details

“Rapture, Blister, Burn” plays through May 15, 2016 at San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown.

Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm Also May 1 at 7 pm; May 7 at 2 pm and May 14 at 4 pm

Tickets: (619) 544-1000 or www.sdrep.org