“I cannot be a stay-at-home mom. I will go crazy. If I just demolish all of my dreams, I will just die,” says actress Sullivan Hamilton. Hamilton is not in character, but her declaration might as well have come out of the mouth of Avery, a millennial woman she plays in PURE Theatre’s latest, Rapture, Blister, Burn. For the actresses in this ensemble show, art imitates life as they navigate a play about four women discussing the difficulties of managing both a satisfying career and personal life.
There’s Catherine (Sharon Graci), the model working woman; Gwen, who has a husband and kids but never explored her own professional desires; Alice — Catherine’s mother — who adheres to traditional domestic values; and, of course, Avery, a pre-med drop-out babysitter who processes everything with the bluntness of a wet-behind-the-ears college student.
“All of us who are in the age range of the characters have talked about the fact that so much that happens in the play hits home to our own experience,” explains Cristy Landis, the play’s director.
In her role as Avery, the 21-year-old Hamilton says her character is a model for a younger generation of women who are able to objectively process the motivations and consequences of — and benefit from — the feminist movement of the last several decades. “She’s fierce,” says Hamilton. “She’s a woman who is all about herself, but still struggles with guys. ”
Graci can also relate to her character of Catherine. Her character developed a distinguished career but wonders what could have been if she had chosen another path. Graci has done both. She co-founded PURE Theatre while raising five children, and she says she appreciates the play’s treatment of the decisions that women like herself have made.
“This play is about the evolution of women as we do things like fight for equality and try to define ourselves in a modern society,” says Graci. “And really with the acknowledgement of what we give up and what we gain and [how we can] really be empowered to make the decisions about what works best for us.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Catherine’s mother Alice (Cynthia Barnett) is an advocate for more traditional domestic values. But Barnett cautions audiences to not view her character too narrowly. “She’s very traditional, but the surprising thing about her is that you never know where she really stands,” says Barnett. “She’s not so one-sided.”
And that’s what Landis believes is so refreshing about playwright Gina Gionfriddo’s work — you get multiple sides of the story. “This tri-generational perspective is really interesting to see, yet it’s not a rigid pigeonhole of specific attitudes,” echoes Landis. “It’s more complicated than that. We as humans are complicated beings.”
Theater fans may recognize Gionfriddo’s smart and witty dialogue — she’s written for Law & Order — and this play confidently features her signature style combined with practical discussions about feminist and antifeminist ideals. Characters name drop Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schafly over afternoon martinis.
“All the references in here are solid, academic references that any woman in the know, any woman in gender studies would know,” Landis says. “We talk about these scholars, and then you see that play out in the lives and the choices of the characters that we meet on stage.”
As a play that lives and dies based on the audience’s connection to each character and the relationships between them, Rapture is a work that requires a cast that can forge a close connection. Luckily Landis says the casts’ familiarity with one another made developing character relationships a breeze. “We have the ability to trust each other so completely that we have the ability to dive in deep. It becomes a true and authentic performance,” says Landis.
To say that it’s a feminist play, though, is to sell it short of its universal message. “I do think that the ideas of the play explore getting to a certain point in your life where you’ve made choices, and where you can feel sometimes stuck at a midpoint in your life and wonder is the grass truly greener somewhere else?” says Landis. It is a play that will surely make audiences reflect on their own choices, lives, and pursuits of happiness.