Rapture Blister Burn at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley
Don (l. Gabriel Marin) shows his true colors to Catherine (Marilee Talkington) and her mother, Alice (Lilian Bogovich), in Aurora Theatre Company’s Bay Area premiere of Rapture, Blister, Burn. Photo: David Allen

Jean-Jacques Rousseau … Betty Friedan … Phyllis Schlafly … Dr. Phil … feminists and anti-feminists are all fodder for amusing academic banter in Gina Gionfriddo’s engaging and entertaining Rapture, Blister, Burn now at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company through Oct. 5.

A finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, Rapture reunites a graduate school triangle after 12 years of separation — Catherine (Marilee Talkington), now a single, feminist scholar and author-cum TV talking-head in stiletto heels; Catherine’s former roommate, Gwen (Rebecca Schweitzer) a graduate school dropout, now a self-righteous, priggish wife and mother of two; and Gwen’s husband, who she snatched from Catherine while Catherine studied abroad, Don (Gabriel Marin), now a pothead, porn-watching, disciplinary college dean.

Avery and Catherine (l-r Nicole Javier, Marilee Talkington*) discuss relationships as Alice (back, Lilian Bogovich) listens in Aurora Theatre Company's Bay Area Premiere of Rapture, Blister, Burn
Nicole Javier and Marilee Talkington in Rapture, Blister, Burn. Photo: David Allen

Catherine arrives to spend the summer in the college town in which Don and Gwen live. Ostensibly, Catherine is there to help her ailing mother, who also lives in town. Yet Catherine’s more-there-than-meets-the-eye mother Alice (Lillian Bogovich) appears to be healthy and self-sufficient, recovering well from her heart attack. Perhaps Catherine’s realization that Alice is her only family causes her to obsess about her mother’s health? Or could Catherine’s homecoming have to do with a mysterious drunken phone call she made to Gwen and Don?

The first act bogs down a bit at first with exposition, but the youthful candor of Gwen’s babysitter, Avery (Nicole Javier) brightens up the didactics with her 20-something post-feminist raunchy sexual frankness. She’s quick and clever enough to want to distinguish between “exclusively hooking up” with her male friend and “hooking up exclusively” with him. The former, she states, makes it sounds as if hooking up is all she does.

In a plot turn that one has to suspend disbelief to appreciate, but no matter, Catherine teaches a summer school class on modern feminist history to only two students — Gwen, and Avery, the babysitter. And the class is given at Alice’s house, so we are witnesses to funny and sympathetic multi-generation considerations of the consanguinity of feminism, Vietnam, 9/11 and horror and slasher movies. The characters’ personal crises, foibles, missed opportunities and interrelationships are in the foreground as they argue the merits of disparate views of womanhood.

Gwen and Catherine, like many women, regret that they couldn’t “have it all,” and that each has the other half of the life they each lack. Catherine lacks a husband and family, and Gwen misses an exciting intellectual life in New York. Ultimately, they take a stab at the half that they miss, to funny and wise results.

Rapture is a well-directed, thoroughly engaging play with a first-rate cast, and some thought-provoking ideas that don’t stand in the way of its entertainment value.

Rapture, Blister, Burn runs through Oct. 5. For information and tickets, visit Aurora Theatre online.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...