If you are a feminist, are interested in feminism or are in a relationship with a feminist, you need to see the play Rapture, Blister, Burn, by Gina Gionfriddo, because it is about you.
This West Coast premiere, currently running at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, features five characters: Cathy (Amy Brenneman), a 40-something feminist academic; her mother, Alice (Beth Dixon), a supportive but more traditionally minded woman; Cathy’s graduate-school friend Gwen (Kellie Overbey), who dropped out in order to get married and have children with Cathy’s ex (they split when Cathy wouldn’t prioritize him over her career); Avery (Virginia Kull), a 21-year-old student with a third-wave, raunch-feminist philosophy; and Don (Lee Tergesen), Gwen’s husband and Cathy’s sometime-lover. By embodying five different perspectives on love, work and women, Gionfriddo puts feminism into dialogue with its detractors and itself.
Our protagonist, Cathy, has a successful career but no family other than her mother, and she envies Gwen for her husband and child. Gwen, who sacrificed her career to raise children and support Don’s ambitions, envies Cathy for her freedom to travel and write. Don’s career has stalled out and would be dead if it weren’t for Gwen’s nagging. Avery, convinced that Gwen has fallen for the feminine mystique and is therefore doomed to despair, is involved in a relationship defined not as dating but as “hooking up exclusively.” Alice experiences confusion, pleasure, and dismay (sometimes all at once) at the modern ideas of the men and women around her.
I spoke with Gionfriddo, who says that she borrowed elements of each character’s perspective from different parts of her own life. She knows women who have foregone dating for hooking up but ultimately felt dissatisfied that those relationships didn’t go deeper. Her mother inspired Alice’s belief that there are no longer any incentives to marry. And Cathy and Gwen are drawn from Gionfriddo’s 40-something contemporaries:
The phenomenon I’m interested in is the age 40 being the age where … it’s like last call if you’re going to do things like change career, have a baby. At 35 you can still be like, Oh, I’ve got a little wiggle room, I can still have a big career or a big marriage. And I think at 40 you start to think it’s gotta happen now if it’s gonna happen. [Cathy and Gwen] were looking at the stuff they didn’t get—the big career, the marriage—and having this moment of, Could I make a sharp turn right now and have it?
Gionfriddo also did extensive research into her subject matter. When she began, she intended to write a play about Internet pornography, but wound up more interested in the “porn war” that split feminism in the ’80s. So she decided to write about a woman academic instead:
I really had to research. I went to a women’s college—Barnard—but I sort of did not want to hear that there was such a thing as discrimination or work-life issues. I just didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to hear that I was ever going to have those problems, so I avoided the classes where I was going to study feminism. So I was coming to it for the first time.
Gionfriddo’s research informs the play in ways both obvious and oblique. Naomi Wolf’s assertion that the availability of internet pornography will lead men to ignore women all together—something Gionfriddo found fascinating—is made manifest in the relationship between Gwen and Don, who is addicted to internet porn at the expense of a sex-life with his wife. Echoes of The Porning of America: The Rise of Porn Culture, What It Means, and Where We Go from Here, by Carmine Sarracino, can be seen in the main character’s area of research (Cathy has written a book called Cruel Appetites: Internet Pornography, September 11th, and the Rise of Degradation as Entertainment). Gionfriddo even read Phyllis Schlafly, whose theories the play scrutinizes. Even for non-feminists, these details cannot help but create credibility and authenticity.
Despite its subject and its source material, neither the play nor the characters come across as didactic. By creating three-dimensional people with real foibles, senses of humor and very personal needs, Gionfriddo manages to take academic feminism from the theoretical to the personal. Each perspective’s blind spots are mirrored in the blind spots of the characters: Cathy’s mother Alice shares Schlafly’s dismay that marriage has been devalued, yet she was dissatisfied by her own conventional marriage. Avery believes her hook-up relationship is empowering, yet when it ends she regrets that it did not become more meaningful. Gwen believes her role as mother can be as fulfilling as any career, yet as her children grow up she worries that, without a life of her own, she will be unable to fill the void of the empty nest. And Cathy knows that her career would have suffered had she sacrificed opportunities for her boyfriend, as he asked, yet she despairs of spending the rest of her life without a family.
After the show opened in New York, Gionfriddo wrote an article for The New York Times responding to observations that her play “takes up where [Wendy Wasserstein’s] The Heidi Chronicles left off.” At the end of that play, Heidi, also a feminist academic, fills a void in her life, created by her decision to prioritize her career over getting married, by having a child while remaining single. Though Gionfriddo, the mother of a donor-conceived daughter herself, admires Wasserstein, she says she actually wanted to avoid an ending that made it seem as if the characters’ problems had all been solved. She wanted, rather, to split the difference between “an arc of despair” and an ending that seemed too pat.
Spoiler alert: She succeeded. As the play draws to a close, three generations of women without men—Alice, Cathy, and Avery— come together to embrace the unknown with a toast to, of all people, Phyllis Schlafly:
She said you girls would pay for your independence and your whoring. She said men wouldn’t stay with you and she was right. You’re free. You’re free …
(A beat; Alice thinks of her own life and what might have been…)
I think it’s wonderful!
The women clink their glasses and laugh. As the lights fade, they look at one another with a mixture of joy and fear. Both they and the audience have figured out that satisfaction rarely comes from any one thing, and when it does come it doesn’t usually last.
Rapture, Blister Burn runs through September 22.
Photo by Michael Lamont of Beth Dixon (Alice) and Amy Brenneman (Cathy) in Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn at the Geffen Playhouse.