By John Quinn
Matrix Theatre has invested in some magnificently comfortable seating. Although the company has gone with chairs rather than conventional theater seats (thus preserving the potential flexibility of the venue), they are wide and generously upholstered. The paradox here is that Matrix is comforting my fundament while unsettling my intellect by consistently mounting challenging, thought-provoking productions. The first show of the company's 24th season is somewhat of a change of pace – a bright, insightful comedy that delivers its knock-out social message in a warm velvet glove.
Gian Gionfriddo's 2012 play "Rapture, Blister, Burn" doesn't sound – at first – like a comedy. The title bears little relation to the plot, but might illuminate the playwright's opinion of the foibles of orthodox feminism. Her work is scholarly, but not at all pedantic. A graduate of Brown University's M.F.A. playwriting program, Gionfriddo is also a television writer. Her work on such dramatic series as "House of Cards," "Law and Order" and "Cold Case" shows the sensibilities that prevent "Rapture, Blister, Burn" from resembling a sitcom.
Catherine (Emily Rogers), a 40-something, highly successful writer and lecturer who never married, returns to her hometown to take care of her ailing mother, Alice (Wendy Katz Hiller). She reconnects with her college roommate, Gwen (Tricia Turek), mother, housewife and married to Catherine's old flame, Don (Casey S. Hibbert). They say the grass is greener on the other side of the fence; both women, each feeling unfulfilled, envies the other's life. Ultimately the theme of "Rapture, Blister, Burn" is not so much "Can a woman have it all?" as "Is having it all really necessary?"
Goinfriddo devoted a wealth of research to provide her comedy with a solid foundation. Act I, Scene 2 is a remarkable bit of craftsmanship (please pardon the gender-specific description). There are three scenes in that act; Scene 2 is easily as long as the other two together. It is also the key to the tone and import of the whole production. To kill time during the summer, Catherine begins teaching a seminar on art and media, examined from the feminist perspective. The only participants turn out to be Gwen and a 21-year-old grad student. Avery (Kelly Rose Voigt) is very much her own woman, but takes the strides in social justice achieved by the feminist movement for granted. The sessions are held at Alice's home, and she becomes involved with her daughter's discussions.
Scene 2, then, represents a marvelous conversation among three generations: pre-feminist, feminism's second wave, and a sort of post-feminism. The dialogue draws on the philosophies of great names in the Women's Movement, ranging from Betty Friedan, Carol Clover, Nancy Friday and even that "anti-feminist," Phyllis Schlafly. Having set out the basic conflicts within the movement, Gionfriddo spends the rest of the play weaving the disparate elements into an engaging, satisfying synthesis. Her comic approach to serious issues makes philosophy tremendous fun.
As is not unusual at Matrix, "Rapture, Blister, Burn" employs a production staff that is mostly women. Only stage manager Patrick Lienemann bears a Y-chromosome. Of special note are the contributions of scenic/properties designer Lisa Charlotte Berg and lighting designer Christina Killmar, who together have wrought a tight, attractive and integrated atmosphere for the show. Killmar's design is rather novel and very effective.
On that pleasing background, director Lisa Hodge Kander has skillfully drawn the contrasts among her characters. Hibbert's Don is not as central to the theme as the four women, but he doesn't let that overshadow his performance. Hibbert even makes the philandering, unambitious, Internet-porn-addicted Don likeable. Rogers and Turek supply the context necessary to understand their conflicted, complex characters. Catherine and Gwen live in different worlds, yet share the same doubts and regrets.
Those doubts wouldn't be a troubling if the pair had the same disregard for labels as younger Avery and older Alice. The characters are bookends for the central conflict and have the best lines of the night. They are free spirits using the others as comic foils. Each in her own way are already understand the meaning of womanhood. Voigt and Hiller enliven the roles with fine timing and line delivery.
"Rapture, Blister, Burn" is a surprise – a product of deep research in a sensitive subject that is delivered with great comic flair. It bodes well for the Matrix season – and that should keep those new, comfy seats well filled.
'Rapture, Blister, Burn'
Matrix Theatre Company
2730 Bagley, Detroit
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 21, 22, 28, 29, Dec. 5, 6
3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23, 30, Dec. 7
2 hours 20 minutes