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'Rapture, Blister, Burn' speaks to real issues for playwright, actress

'Rapture, Blister, Burn' is seen by some as a modern 'Heidi Chronicles,' dealing with women's career-marriage struggle. It resonates for playwright Gina Gionfriddo and actress Amy Brenneman.

August 17, 2013|By Celine Wright
  • Amy Brenneman, left, Kellie Overbey and Virginia Kull in "Rapture, Blister, Burn" at the Geffen Playhouse.
Amy Brenneman, left, Kellie Overbey and Virginia Kull in "Rapture,… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

Actress Amy Brenneman said that a friend who read the script for Gina Gionfriddo's play "Rapture, Blister, Burn" told her the part seemed to be written for her.

Brenneman, who is recognizable from the TV shows "Private Practice" and "Judging Amy," plays Catherine Croll, a fortysomething, successful, single academic who is trying to figure out why she feels unfulfilled in her personal life. The play opens Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse.

Though the character of Catharine is an author with titles such as "Women Always Call Free: Pornography and the Corruption of American Feminism" on her resume, her personal life doesn't feel as accomplished, and she still lusts after an old boyfriend.


FOR THE RECORD:
"Rapture, Blister, Burn": An Aug. 18 article about Gina Gionfriddo's play "Rapture, Blister, Burn" said that Gionfriddo's last play was "Becky Sharpe." The title is "Becky Shaw." —

For Brenneman, the role was perfect. "It's people talking eloquently about second-wave feminism," she says. "[Gionfriddo] has this magical genius of taking heady stuff and connecting it to the heart. It's like you're learning, but you're also getting an emotional impact."

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"This was the first play I consciously did research for," says Gionfriddo, a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in drama for her last play, "Becky Shaw." "I was ultimately aiming to write about the effects of widespread access to Internet pornography. I did an enormous amount of research, and I hadn't really concluded anything."

What she wrote instead is a multi-generational play pointing outthat women still face the questions raised dramatically in other eras — perhaps most memorably by the 1988 Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Heidi Chronicles" by Wendy Wasserstein. It's a play that Gionfriddo has acknowledged has special resonance for her.

The Wasserstein play follows the life of Heidi Holland, whom the audience watches transform from a naïve college student of the 1960s into a successful art historian. All the while, Heidi is living and breathing the beginnings of second-wave feminism and questioning the patriarchal world around her.

"The Heidi Chronicles' are timeless," says Heidi Lewis, assistant professor of feminist and gender studies at Colorado College. "It allows us to see how far we've come and how far we have to go."

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Even though "Rapture, Blister, Burn" was written more than 20 years later, it brings to light the same sort of conflicts that remain for women today.

In "Rapture," Cathy moves back home to take care of her mother and meanwhile, reunites with grad-school friends Gwen and (Cathy's ex-flame) Don, who are married with children. Cathy ends up teaching a summer course that enrolls only two students: Gwen, who is eager to find academic fulfillment again, and Avery, a college student who admires Cathy and needs to fill a course requirement.

The female characters all struggle with choosing between career and marriage, just as Brenneman and Gionfriddo, successful working mothers, face the balance between career and family every day.

Brenneman is in her 40s, like her character, Cathy, but she's married with children — "It was very Cathy to be single in New York," says Brenneman, who made a temporary, cross-country move to New York, without her two children and husband, to work on the play. Though Brenneman calls Los Angeles home, the play was developed in New York and premiered at the Playwright's Horizon last June.

The experience of becoming Cathy in solitude, far away from her family, offered a familiar parallel to the world her character lives in — Cathy yearns for Gwen's married life just as Gwen is jealous of Cathy's career.

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In real life, "I'm Gwen, and I'm not," says Brenneman. "I have a piece of me that's a mother and a piece of me that's not." It was only fitting that Brenneman create her character, Cathy, in a world with similar though impermanent circumstances.

This mirror helped Brenneman shape her character in the play, just how, and on a larger scale, the story is a projection of playwright Gionfriddo's own life and struggles.

"I was starting down the road of having a child by myself," Gionfriddo says of the play's development. "I think I was listening very hard to the women in my life, the ones who had families and the ones who didn't, and their complaints on either side. What each felt they were missing."

As a student at Barnard College, Gionfriddo remembers being shaken when she saw "The Heidi Chronicles," because of the larger conflicts it presented.

"I was at a women's college and I was hearing all the time, 'You have such opportunities,' and yet I was very sad," she says. "That was what I responded to. This character who acknowledges that she has tremendous opportunities but was still not happy. There was fear that I could wind up at Heidi's age with the same feeling."

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