This winter’s “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” written by Gina Gionfriddo, and directed by Kimberly Senior, has taken the Goodman’s Albert by storm. It was touching, sidesplittingly funny and provided an honest, powerful examination of feminism that is both a rarity and necessity to find on stage.
The production chronicles the life of a feminist author named Catherine (Jennifer Coombs) who moves back home after her mother, Alice (Mary Ann Thebus) suffers a heart attack. Catherine is immediately reunited with her old grad school companions Gwen (Karen Janes Woditsch) and Don Harper (Mark L. Montgomery), with whom she shares a convoluted and painful past. Soon, Catherine begins to teach a class on feminism in her living room. The students, unbeknownst to Catherine at first, include the Harpers’ babysitter, Avery (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason) and Gwen. When Catherine’s mother begins to join in on their weekly sessions, a unique and tri-generational account of feminism unfolds. As the historical, cultural and social lessons unfurl themselves, each character is forced to confront where they have been, where they will go and, above all, what it is they want in life.
The small and tight-knit cast operates on an intuitive level. It is clear that they inhabit not only the characters that they portray, but the world that they live in, too. Coombs brings a down-to-earth honesty to the perpetually conflicted Catherine, while Slaughter-Mason crackles to life. Her biting one-liners elicit enormous laughter.
Senior is renowned for her directorial work and is also an adjunct professor at DePaul. This season, she has invoked a truly spectacular world in “Rapture, Blister, Burn.” Her inimitable work causes it to come alive with a distinct and incredible pop of energy.
“It’s a fantastic play,” Senior said. “Gina Gionfriddo, the playwright, has crafted this hilariously frantic, yet deeply passionate and moving story that really asks the question about whether or not women can have it all.”
Senior described how closely the work mirrors her own life. She explained that, typically, she has shied away from taking on projects that she connects with on this level but has now embraced it. It is clear that her familiar perspective has offered a true gift to the show; it is deeply empathetic, intimate and honest.
“There is the responsibility and accountability of putting that out there and knowing that all of these women are going to hear their story, a story, a new point of view, old points of view, all intersecting on stage,” she said. “They are part of a rich continuum and history of women who have been asking questions and digging deeper and pursuing a greater truth. It is so moving to me that I have anything to do with that.”
“Rapture, Blister, Burn” represents a marvelous culmination of knowledge, history and story. Through Catherine’s weekly lessons, the audience receives factual information pertaining to the feminist movement and through the moving narrative that Gionfriddo has crafted they also receive a poignant, hilarious, and thought-provoking account of four women’s lives. It is a large task to bring an enormous concept like feminism to life on stage, but Senior does it masterfully.
“Ultimately you can’t direct feminism,” she said. “You can’t act feminism. So what I have been trying to do is to get at the human story that is underneath and how are these theories affecting the actions and behaviors of the people in the play as it’s happening to them. So that is sort of what the work has been about, how to activate those ideas.”
Senior said she would tell audiences one thing before they saw the show.
“The theater is the place where we go to see people say the things that we can’t say in real life and behave in a way that we can’t behave in real life, and how exciting it is to get to do that,” she said. “(You get to) really lean into the experience of being in a theater.”
The Goodman’s newest production is a powerful and important treat; it is driven by female artistry and narratives that remain with their audiences long after they have left the theater. “Rapture Blister Burn” has an uncanny ability to simultaneously ground its audience in real issues and transport them to another world entirely. It is full of talent, refreshingly candid, and possesses a beautiful heart; it is sure to make its way into your own.
“Rapture, Blister, Burn” runs at The Goodman Theatre though Feb. 22.