‘Women are fucked either way: they have a career and wind up lonely and sad, or have a family and wind up lonely and sad.’
Catherine, Gwen and Don were friends at grad school. Catherine and Don were together, until she moved to London without him; by the time she returned, Gwen had claimed him. Now Catherine – still single – has the ‘sexy scholar gig’ (cue Emilia Fox in heels, skinny jeans and a leather jacket) and has written two acclaimed books on pornography, while Gwen is a recovering alcoholic; a frumpy mother-of-two who got the guy but realises she’s now trapped in a ‘flawed, tired marriage.’ When Catherine returns to the New England college town where her mother (recovering from a heart attack) lives, and where Don teaches, sparks fly. Or do they?
This is the setting of Gina Gionfriddo’s new play, which claims to be an exploration of the ever-popular question: can women have it all? However, instead of giving us a nuanced, character-driven piece that encourages us to look at the debate anew, Gionfriddo seems more concerned to offer a potted history of second wave feminism, from Betty Friedan to Phyllis Schlafly. To facilitate this, Gionfriddo creates a rather convenient set-up: Catherine is giving private lessons in her mother’s house, and the only students who enrol are her friend Gwen and Gwen’s intelligent, precocious 21-year-old former babysitter. So we have three generations of women in the same living room, debating ‘raunch feminism’, pornography and ‘torture horror’.
These conversations elicit some laughs, of course, and Gionfriddo at her best (Becky Shaw) is an intelligent, acerbic and incredibly witty writer, but, even though the women’s lives and opinions are gradually revealed, the academic nature of the discussion is much less engaging than a really deep, probing and truthful examination of these characters, their choices and how they feel about them. Interesting, pertinent, hugely topical issues are touched on – the dilemmas confronting the modern woman; can women combine a career with a family; does love have to give way to a career; are intimate relationships (with spouses/parents/children), for women, ultimately what will make them happiest? – but, despite the suggestive title, Rapture, Blister, Burn lacks emotion.
Emilia Fox doesn’t quite convince as Cathy, the scholar who’s allegedly set the academic world alight, though she does bring a sweetness to Cathy’s relationship with her mother, Alice, and a certain endearing fragility in the second half. She is more than ably supported by the rest of the cast, particularly Shannon Tarbet as the babysitter, Avery, who not only has the best lines, but also delivers them with impeccable comic timing. Tarbet even manages to strike a perfect balance between a generous helping of sarcasm and a seemingly genuine desire to help the older women around her.
While Gionfriddo poses the occasional interesting question about how modern women negotiate their lives, and though the writing can be both warm and funny, unfortunately Rapture, Blister, Burn fails to offer any new or pertinent conclusions to the feminist debate. Gionfriddo touches on whether asking if women can have it all is actually posing the wrong question, and I can’t help wishing she had pushed herself further in this direction. Instead, the play limps to the hackneyed conclusion that, for women, success in public and happiness at home are mutually exclusive.