Drawing on a timeline of works from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Dr. Phil, Gina Gionfriddo’s play “Rapture, Blister, Burn” is a fireball of quick wit and high stakes around the most thoughtful exploration of what it means to be a woman with options in a society that makes one feel guilty for not having it all. The magnificent cast at Downtown Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre brings to life this battleground of feminist ideas in Gionfriddo’s script but also transcends it, bringing the audience a beautifully nuanced case study of the human spirit searching for purpose and fulfillment.
Cathy (Marilee Talkington) — an accomplished two-time author and occasional television scholar who holds a doctorate degree — wonders if she chose the wrong path in her life by focusing her energy mostly on her career instead of a life with a family. She visits ex-boyfriend Don, now married to their grad-school dropout buddy Gwen (Rebecca Schweitzer), a prim and proper polka-dotted and ballerina-bunned mother of two who thrives in the sphere of homemaking. Each woman fantasizes about the path in life that the other chose, becoming the ultimate “what-ifs” for each other.
In the most rambunctious scene of the show, Cathy teaches a summer seminar on feminism in her living room. Years and years of feminist discourse unfold, and every character in the room embodies some version of a particular scholar’s argument. 21-year-old Avery, with a hip and unabashed personality, stands up for sexual freedom and equality but rejects the feminist label, which rubs right up against the slut-shaming Gwen, who relates better to conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly’s ideal woman in the home. Meanwhile, Cathy’s adorably cynical mother Alice further complicates their arguments as a firsthand source to the feminist movement of the ’60s.
While an expansive amount of information unfurls in the living room, director Desdemona Chiang crafts what could have been a cheap, pedantic classroom scene into what breathes and feels like an authentic play within a play, relieving the script of arduous discourse and highlighting the subtextual motivations behind each character’s burning inner struggle.
Though Gwen and Catherine are perfect foils, Schweitzer shows otherwise in a powerful scene where Gwen breaks down into her anxieties as a mother. This opens up the character from her one-dimensional, annoying personality into a deeply complex and relatable human being. The same multi-faceted character dynamic is true across the stage, thanks to the outstanding power cast. When Cathy is disappointed or heartbroken, Talkington underscores the true devastation and worry in her psyche with a guise of strength and precise acting power. On paper, Don is a porn- and pot-addicted, passionless, middle-aged man — a real schmuck figure. But actor Gabriel Marin evolves his character into a self-aware, comfortable everyman who quips playfully in conjunction with the feminist struggles going on around him.
This is not just a play about feminism but a play about heartfelt characters figuring out why myths of traditional “success” aren’t always enough. This production delivers the script’s impressive intelligence with the cast’s magnificently well-rounded acting. Everyone is relatable and hardly vilified. They are vulnerable, hilarious, sharp and poignant. “Rapture, Blister, Burn” is not just a play to see but a performance to experience.
“Rapture, Blister, Burn” is running at Aurora Theatre in Berkeley through Oct. 5.