If Little Theatre of Norfolk had marketed Rapture, Blister, Burn as a “multi-generational dialogue on contemporary feminism” it would inevitably deter some patrons.
(It shouldn’t, though—it doesn’t proselytize enough to require avoidance.) That honest description would also surely attract a number of other patrons, considering the production’s timeliness.
LTN isn’t known for being edgy—that’s more Generic’s shtick. But they’ve produced a piece that interacts with this ongoing (and often controversial) cultural discussion about feminism—a conversation that is happening locally. Very locally— the Norfolk Women’s March happened on Sunday within walking distance of the theatre.
“Rapture, Blister, Burn” deals with the sometimes messy reality of living as a feminist—the tension between having a clear picture of theory in one’s mind and struggling to incorporate it into interpersonal relationships, not always knowing if a particular choice makes one a “bad feminist” even if it follows the root theory that all women should have the freedom to choose their own path.
The story follows Catherine Croll, who moved back to her hometown to look after her aging mother, Alice, who’s had a heart attack. She visits Don and Gwen Harper upon arriving in town. Don is Cathy’s ex-boyfriend who has gotten her a job at the college where he’s a dean, and Gwen is Cathy’s former college roommate who got Don to wife her up while Cathy was studying abroad. The two women live opposite lives, one a stay-at-home mom and the other an accomplished feminist author and speaker, and each one covets the other. Cathy starts teaching a summer course, and the only two students are Gwen and the Harper family’s babysitter, Avery, who’s set on becoming a reality TV star. Things soon get complicated, as Cathy begins an affair with Don, Gwen finds out, and then the three negotiate a sort of wife swap, in which the women each experience the life they never had. The rest of the play is the characters navigating their tangled web and trying to learn what actually works.
The cast was captivating to watch—each member played their character fully invested in their goals and in each other, an ideal ensemble. Sally Shedd played the conflicted Catherine Croll as flawed but relatable—she made the audience understand why Cathy wants what she wants, even if what she wants is objectively mediocre. Eileen Engel made her mother, Alice, into the perfect blend of doting mother and “tell-it-like-it-is” attitude. Daniela Spielvogel gave Avery the fieriness she needed and made the character’s journey of growth engaging. Louse Casini Hollis emphasized Gwen’s strength, and even though she’s not a character that inspires the audience’s affection at first, she ultimately makes her sympathetic and complex. Rob Fortner plays Don as average and uninspired in the best way possible—he’s likable but unimpressive, a “nice guy” who constantly underwhelms.
This was an impressive first show from director Cindy Shea, and I look forward to seeing any future productions she chooses to direct. While bits of blocking were a bit “stagey,” her actors’ motivation made any problem areas unobtrusive. The only part that caused confusion was Alice’s exit from one side of the stage and re-entrance on the other, as up to that point, one side had been established as the door to the outside and the other as the entrance to the rest of the house. Cindy was also the sound designer and made great transition music selections.
BA Ciccolella’s set design was simple without erring on the side of minimalism and allowed for smooth scene transitions. The only distracting element was the stark while of the drop in the Croll backyard—it needed something equivalent to the Harper backyard’s wood shingled panels, indicating the side of the house.
Meg Murray and Jennifer Titter made some nice costume choices with Avery, Alice, and especially Don, whose socks-and-sandals fashion sense was a constant reminder of his mediocrity and a cue to question why two women desired him so deeply. Gwen and Cathy were less defined, though. Gwen’s style never achieved either polished housewife or frazzled mom, and Cathy lacked a New York chicness that one might expect, aside from the clearly symbolic leather jacket that appeared only at the play’s beginning and end.
One lighting choice from designer (and assistant director) Nina Martin that I especially liked was the single light remaining on the lantern at the end of the show. (The choice to have the lantern as a prop initially confused me, though I eventually figured it was supposed to be a hurricane lamp, since they’d been discussing a hurricane in the script.) It was subtle, but the lantern as a symbol of the hope and perseverance of women’s love and strength was a lovely image to conclude the show.
The show doesn’t end with a clear message to the audience. Both Cathy and Gwen wish they could have both a career and family, but (spoiler!) by the story’s end, this escapes both of them. Perhaps the implication is that women can live “freely” but still can’t “have it all” as long as the gender norms of a patriarchal society persist. We’re trapped in a world in which we might want to resist these standards, but resisting them risks impeding our own chances at personal success or happiness within the culture that upholds them. Women have made immense progress in the past two centuries, but the path forward isn’t always clear. There’s no single easy solution, but just like the women of the past brought us where we are now, it’s our duty to bring a better world to the women of the future.