‘Rapture, Blister, Burn’ at St. Mark’s Players is deeper than ‘Barbie’

The funny, feminist, and thought-provoking show explores the choices women make.

By Jillian Parks

For everyone who left the Barbie movie disappointed by the surface-level feminism and questions that it explored, the St. Mark’s Players’ production of Rapture, Blister, Burn is a thought-provoking, funny, and almost academic alternative.

The show follows the marriage of Gwen Harper (played by Erin Gallalee) and Don Harper (played by Mark Whooley). Gwen, stuck in a marriage with the alcohol-loving, pot-smoking, porn-consuming Don, finds that her choice to give up school and marry young came with unfulfilling results. In their graduate school days, the couple used to be friends with Catherine Croll (played by Christine Hardy), with whom they have only recently reunited. Catherine moved back to town to take care of her mom, Alice Croll (played by Denise Sudell), after a heart attack, which prompted her to start thinking about her choices to pursue a career over starting a family. While in town, Catherine decides to teach a course on feminism that Gwen and her babysitter, Avery Willard (played by Brianna Day), are the only ones to enroll in.

Mark Whooley (as Don Harper), Christine Hardy (Catherine Croll), and Erin Gallalee (Gwen Harper) in ‘Rapture, Blister, Burn.’ Photo by Mark Alan Andre.

The show mainly explores the branch of feminism known as “choice feminism,” which the playwright, Gina Gionfriddo, explores through thinkers such as Betty Friedan, Phyllis Schlafly, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and, if you can even call him a thinker, Dr. Phil. With tri-generational perspectives, the women question the virtue of sacrifice, the “hard wiring” of men, marriage as an institution, and the fulfillment of being untethered.

As the show ends, questions of masculinity and femininity ultimately turn into a more universal questioning of every individual’s freedom and responsibility to make and live with their choices.

Hardy is onstage for practically the entire show, and thank God for that because she provides an anchor point of genuine dialogue and investment that kept me from checking my watch at any point. I got goosebumps during her final scene where she breaks down about her choices not leading to the life she was hoping for.

Brianna Day (as Avery Willard) in ‘Rapture, Blister, Burn.’ Photo by Mark Alan Andre.

Day also has a fantastic onstage presence. On top of being articulate, honest, and natural, she is funny. Like, really funny. After a couple of glasses of wine, the people in front of me seemed to think she (and everything) was really, really funny, but her jokes seemed to land consistently for the rest of us too.

Gallalee provides a fun, energetic foil to Hardy’s cool, composed demeanor. Sudell plays a classic, quirky, potentially overly supportive mom who brings almost a sit-comy energy to the scenes she is in.

I struggled to connect with Whooley. And maybe in a play about women and their choices, it’s not important that I really empathize with the directionless, loser husband character. Nevertheless, with looser body language and a stronger confidence in his line memorization, I feel he could have better conveyed the “drifting through life” descriptions of his character.

in ‘Rapture, Blister, Burn.’ Photo by Mark Alan Andre.

The show is at its very best during its symposium-style classroom scenes, which take place in Catherine’s living room. The longer explications of feminist history are written and delivered brilliantly, and the overall direction of those scenes is a triumph for directors Heather Danskin and James Wright.

The space, at first, felt too intimate. Theater-style acting from three feet away definitely required an adjustment on my part. But as the show went on, and the characters became more real, the intimate setup felt like an opportunity for all of us — audience and cast alike — to laugh together. Through a combined effort of Gerardo Mijares-Shafari, Allegra Hatem, and Courtney Elkins, the set places three locations on a unilateral plane. It feels homey, and the furniture has an appropriately dated, church-rummage-sale vibe to it. The minute I clocked the green couch, quilted throw pillows, and martini glasses, I knew someone was going to be living with a parent.

The lighting design, thanks to Ashley Holmes, Ernie Molina, Roger Munter, and David Chase, directs focus in a way that makes great use of the space. Lighting-wise, true blackouts were not possible in that space, so actors and directors made the compelling and wise decision to continue the action and acting even when the stage lights went off. This led to some funny moments and an overall more immersive experience.

While I wish the cheeseball leather jacket had not been used to signify a woman going against the grain in her 40s, the costuming on the whole, done by Courtney Elkins and the cast, naturally and effectively conveyed real people from different generations.

The show ends on an unsatisfying note. Or at least unsatisfying to me. Gwen just goes back to her life of mediocrity, and Catherine is devastated over someone who the audience does not understand the appeal of.

But something is convicting about that feeling. Without a triumphant ending, the show ends with a contemplative offering. Maybe “choice feminism” is an unfulfilling, unempowering response to the bad behavior of bad men. Maybe freedom as a solution by itself misses the mark when women are given depressing options no matter what. I, like the show, don’t have full answers or philosophies to tie up the loose ends in a neat little bow. But I’ll keep looking, and Rapture, Blister, Burn certainly propelled me forward in that journey.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes plus one 15-minute intermission.

Rapture, Blister, Burn plays through March 9, 2024, presented by St. Mark’s Players performing at St. Mark’s Church, 301 A Street SE, Washington, DC. Tickets ($25 for adults; $22 for students and seniors) may be purchased at the box office or online.

Jillian Parks is a junior Rhetoric and Media major at Hillsdale College; however, she devotes the bulk of her time to her Journalism minor. She grew up doing and teaching community theater, which has bled directly into the kinds of writing she is passionate about. This past semester she served as Culture editor of the campus newspaper, The Collegian, highlighting everything from student projects to New York City debuts. She also works as the Digital Director for the college’s radio station and co-hosts a weekly podcast on factual disparities in social media narratives.

Rapture, Blister, Burn
Produced by Margaret Chapman, Bob Connelly, and Courtney Elkins
Sound Design by Alan Wray

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