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BWW Reviews: Theatre Memphis' RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN - 'Blistered Sisters'

While watching the Next Stage production of Gina Gionfriddo's RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN at Theatre Memphis, I was reminded of John Van Druten's screenplay for the 1943 Warner Brothers film OLD ACQUAINTANCE. It was one of those "women pictures" which provided thespic opportunities for the likes of actresses like Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins, who, in fact, were the lead players in this particular film. In their youth, the two women had been friends, but as their paths parted in life, the Davis character, brittle and alone, became a critically acclaimed (if financially challenged) author, while the Hopkins character, finally penning a bestseller (trash that it is, it rakes in the "big bucks"), jealously desires what Davis has. I couldn't help thinking, if Gionfriddo's RAPTURE had fallen into the hands of a director like Vincent Sherman, I could see Davis as the "Catherine Croll" character, who, despite national recognition and an evidently fulfilling career, begins to have doubts about her life choices. (If you've ever seen the famous car scene in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's ALL ABOUT EVE, also starring Davis, you'll hear the character of stage actress "Margo Channing" lament what a woman gives up when she devotes herself entirely to a career: I wonder if this very scene influenced Ms. Gionfriddo in her characterizations.) The other character, "Gwen," would obviously have been given over to Hopkins, who would have shone as the once promising woman who jettisoned her own burgeoning promise to marry "Don Harper," who once had been Catherine's intended (George Brent, anyone?).

In short, the old "What I Did For Love" (of career? of marriage?) theme becomes front and center. Catherine, somewhat wistful about what she could have had, has returned to her hometown, ostensibly to care for her mother "Alice" (the beguiling Ann Sharp in her "Spring Byington" period, blithely serving martinis and past being overly serious about any issue), who has recently suffered a heart attack. Reuniting with Gwen and Don (he is a dean at the college at which Catherine teaches - and a pot-smoking, porn-addicted dean, at that), Catherine at first seems disenchanted with the choices she has made; and Gwen is chafing because of what she has denied herself. Gwen has pulled some strings to enable Catherine to conduct a summer class, and the ensuing sessions (with Gwen herself as a student) entail everything from feminist issues to horror films as they reflect changes in the way women are treated. As these two women start sliding onto the other's end of the seesaw, some zippy one-liners are constantly underscored with observations that should almost have a pause button at the end of each thought-provoking revelation. Gionfriddo's savvy script is careful not to sway too heavily to either side (though Alice and grad student-turned reality film maker-turned baby sitter-turned waitress "Avery" are both in Catherine's corner).

Like the fairy tale characters of Stephen Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS, all of these characters think they know what they want and find themselves in the situation of actually getting it. It's fun watching them slip into unfamiliar - and ultimately uncomfortable - shoes - and watching them squirm when those shoes don't fit. The Gionfriddo script allows each character not only to switch roles, but also (as in the case of Alice and Avery) reverse positions which they once firmly held. It's particularly funny when the Phyllis Schlafly-bashing Avery suddenly discovers what makes her relationship "work." Gionfriddo relishes in playing "devil's advocate" (after all, she "cut her teeth" - er, keyboard - on scripts for LAW AND ORDER, famous for turning expectations inside out); and while feminist issues are smartly bandied about (the central three are all highly educated), and names like "Betty Friedan" are dropped right and left, the prize possession ostensibly seems to be the lethargic "Don." If he's "the apple" of the eyes of the two discontented women, he's certainly a "bruised" one.

Director Tony Isbell has gathered about him a very winning ensemble. As the anxious "Catherine," Erin Shelton appears confident and successful, but her fears about possibly losing her mother and about facing the years ahead alone and lacking support have rendered her vulnerable, and Ms. Shelton's nuanced, wavering protagonist is beautifully executed. In the slightly less prominent role of "Gwen," Tracie Hansom grimly embraces her inner "June Cleaver"; she believes that if, indeed, being a wife and mother entails a certain asceticism and abnegation, so be it. Her final scene with her husband is sympathetic and touchingly honest: Here is a woman whose life has been hemmed in by familial responsibilities and who has learned to accept her own shortcomings, and she is very touching and honest about her lot. As the likable underachiever "Don," dimpled Steven Burk winces about lost love and lost opportunities, and as the male at the center of the ladies' intellectual and emotional conflicts, he's rather like a ping pong ball being paddled back and forth across the net. There's more than enough charm, though, to make him worthy of the appeal of both ladies. In addition to the cheery Ms. Sharp, there's an extremely engaging turn by Jillian Barron as "Avery" - her curt dismissal of the relevance of the past, dropping of "Google"-related terminology, seeming (at least, initially) self-control, coaching of the older and more famous Catherine, and failure to see the value of experience are all hilariously realized. Hers is a unique creation, and Barron knows she has a gem of a part.

Mr. Isbell commandeers all of this with skill and efficiency. He has always had an affinity for tight, intimate plays like this; an actor himself, he knows how to elicit the best from his company. Jack Yates, moreover, has made superb use of the limited space of Next Stage (I wanted to crawl down from my seat and join them on that sofa!) Through April 19. Photo courtesy of Theatre Memphis.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)