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Goodman ‘Rapture, Blister, Burn’: Two women pause at crossroads, ponder life, toss a beanbag

Submitted by on Jan 30, 2015 – 11:33 pm

Catherine (Jennifer Coombs) and Don (Mark L.. Montgomery) are still dancing around the old flame in 'Rapture, Blister, Burn.' (Liz Lauren)Review: “Rapture, Blister, Burn” by Gina Gionfriddo, at Goodman Theatre through Feb. 22. ★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

The wisdom and the charm of Gina Gionfriddo’s play “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” at the Goodman Theatre, resounds in the collision of two fortysomething women, old friends from college, one a mom and the other a scholar in women’s studies, who now look at each other’s lives and question their own choices. Yet in the end, the dramatic sum feels somehow less than this coalescence of clever parts. 

Don (Mark L. Montgomery) and Gwen (Karen Janes Woditsch) live life in low gear. (Liz Lauren)Gwen is the mother of two boys, one a teenager and the other barely beyond infancy. She bailed from graduate school to marry Don, a blazing intellectual with great promise written all over him. That was maybe 15 years ago. Since then, Don has embraced booze, drugs, porn and the career path of least resistance. He’s a dean at a small college. It’s a bit more pay but a lot less work than actually teaching.

Suddenly, the forward slug of their marriage is disrupted by the arrival of their former classmate and pal Catherine – still gorgeous and now famous for her books on feminism and television appearances as an authority on the subject. Back up a long and circuitous trail, Catherine and Don were campus lovers poised at the threshold of lifelong togetherness. But when she split for an academic stint in London, Don grew restless and turned to Gwen.

And here they are, all back together again. Catherine has returned to look after her mother Alice, who’s recovering from a heart attack. Alice lives next door to Gwen and Don.

Catherine (Jennifer Coombs) is an expert on women's issues but faces some hard personal questions. (Liz Lauren)As a professor accustomed to work, Catherine induces Don to get her a summer class to teach – on the arc of feminism and the liberation of women from the 1960s to the present. But just two students show up: Gwen and her sometime babysitter, Avery, a completely liberated and very bright 21-year-old premed student. Oh, and Catherine’s seventysomething mom crashes the class from time to time.

Thus the table is set for a provocative, funny and ultimately sobering examination of women’s roles, generational perspectives, personal crises and life as a state of mind.

As the glamorous, financially successful scholar and the devoted mother making do with modest means, Jennifer Coombs and Karen Janes Woditsch provide a credible and appealing pair of opposites.

Catherine's mom Alice (Mary Ann Thebus) offers an older generation's take on the cultural arc of womanhood. (Liz Lauren)Woditsch’s devoted mom Gwen embraces her anonymity in leafy suburbia. (Designer Jack Magaw’s brightly lanterned back porch captures that nest perfectly.) She loves motherhood and homemaking. Husband Don has turned out to be an unmotivated oaf (Mark L. Montgomery schleps through that cartoonish role), but Gwen has never quite given up on him.

Coombs’ scholar is all seriousness, immersed in the historical sociology of women’s issues. But here’s the wrinkle: Back in college, she and Don were a steamy item, and the old spark may have heat in it yet.

The setup smacks of sitcom, and it’s evidently beyond the redemptive touch of director Kimberly Senior. Moreover, in its pendulum swings between women’s liberation lectures and domestic crisis, the play veers toward a sort of wry talkiness. It is at least relieved by the riotous interjections of pragmatic, smart-alecky, sexually sprung Avery (played with disarming vitality by Cassidy Slaughter-Mason) on the one hand and, on the other, the wit and seasoned honesty of Catherine’s mother Alice (the glowing, comically precise Mary Ann Thebus). Since Catherine’s class of two students meets in Alice’s living room, ever-attentive Mom sometimes sits in and sometimes just serves a refreshing cocktail.

Youthful, free-spirited Avery (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason) brings a fresh perspective to the feminist debate. (Liz Lauren)Further stirring the pot is the decision by the other mother, Gwen, to bolt for New York to reset her life and explore the possibility of a career – while Catherine takes her place in the kitchen and other marital spaces. While that pot is simmering, the sluggardly Don must deal with Catherine’s helpful, oblique nudging toward his once-great destiny. Montgomery is mildly amusing in a shallow role. Frankly, it’s the male inversion of 1950s film parts for women, the ones charged with memorable lines like, “Coffee, anyone?” He’s sort of a breathing beanbag.

How the play works itself out leaves one wishing for a greater surprise – and in the case of Gwen, really the mother of three rather than two, a less melancholy option. There’s something vaguely tragic about this pastiche of one-liners and something vaguely trivial in Catherine’s final flourish. She’s found her companion, and so the comedy ends. With half a laugh.

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