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West End Players' Brilliant Rapture, Blister, Burn Grapples with What Women Want

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Is there an artful, critically reserved way to say I loved Rapture, Blister, Burn? I'm sure there's a way to phrase my admiration that would make you nod solemnly and reserve your tickets immediately after reading this, but you're better off knowing straight out of the gates that West End Players Guild's current production is funnier, smarter and more feminine than anything on stage or screen right now.

And that's "feminine" not in the sense of being soft or delicate, but "feminine" as in "sharp," "pragmatic" and "insightful." Gina Gionfriddo's comic-drama is all about women: What they want, how they get it and what they think about the wanting and the getting at different stages of life. Stephen Peirick directs with sensitivity and restraint, allowing Gionfriddo's script to work its magic.

Catherine (Nicole Angeli) is a 40-something professional feminist thinker, an academic who appears on Politically Incorrect and cable news shows when a sexy woman's opinion is needed. She has moved home to take care of her mother, Alice (Donna Weinsting), after Mom's heart attack, and is now rethinking her decision to remain childless and single. Old friends Gwen and Don Harper (Mara Bollini and Jeff Kargus) only reinforce that doubt. Gwen's a homemaker and Don's a listless college dean, but Gwen had been Catherine's college roommate and sister feminist, while Don had been a passionate teacher and Catherine's boyfriend — maybe the boyfriend. As the old friends reconnect, old passions rekindle.

In another play, the growing romance between Catherine and Don would dominate the proceedings. Instead Catherine teaches a 0x000Asummer-school seminar on feminism, and her only student other than Gwen happens to be Gwen's recently fired babysitter, Avery (Elizabeth Van Pelt). Alice is a drop-in student as well, since the class is held in her living room.

What follows are bracing discussions of feminist theory with three generations of women digging into porn, slasher movies, 9/11, the wisdom of Phyllis Schlafly (yes, really!) and the delicate politics of stalled marriages and personal unhappiness in middle age. Rapture, Blister, Burn has the longest, sustained scenes of women discussing the vicissitudes of life that I can recall. The characters don't all agree, yet they all get to say what they feel without being shouted down or dismissed.

Bollini has the toughest role as Gwen, who is domineering with Don and something of a know-it-all, and she plays it to the hilt without being unsympathetic. Weinsting charms as a mother still looking out for her only child, but Van Pelt gets the best lines as the voice of new, modern women.

Avery on marriage: "Either you're single — and lonely and sad — or you're married, and lonely and sad. Either way, you're fucked." Avery on porn versus actual sex: "Once you get directions from Google, you really don't wanna unfold a map." Her effortless brilliance leads to Avery becoming Catherine's life coach as she pursues Don. That this pursuit happens between classes only increases the tension of each meeting.

Kargus is very good as the unambitious Don, but what's interesting about this lone male character is how little agency he has. He's a pawn in Catherine and Gwen's larger separate struggles to change the course of their own lives, a prize to be won or tossed away.

Angeli is fantastic as the confident and assured academic, but what makes Rapture, Blister, Burn work is her skill at showing how that confidence comes from Catherine's relationship with her mother. Alice is the only constant in her life, and the realization that someday she'll be gone terrifies Catherine. Friendships fade, theories change and boyfriends come and go, but a mother's love is eternal.

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