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The women's war

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Theater:"Rapture, Blister, Burn"

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If the beautifully persuasive Amy Brenneman had been an active feminist in the 1970s she might have played an important role in getting the Equal Rights Amendment ratified by the three additional states needed to cement it into the United States Constitution.

As it is, Brenneman brings her persuasive skills to Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn, a new play that brings those feminist concerns, updated, to the Geffen Playhouse.

The four women involved in this intelligent and challenging discussion are Alice (Beth Dixon), a woman who lived through the early years of the Feminist Movement with some confusion and some trepidation; her daughter Catherine (Brenneman), whose career as an author and professor has made her a celebrated spokesperson for women’s issues; Catherine’s former college roommate Gwen (Kellie Overby), who has opted for wife and motherhood; and Avery (Virginia Kull), a college student who thinks of the Movement as ancient history, somewhat akin to the Civil War.

The lone man in this ensemble is Don (Lee Tergesen), Gwen’s husband and Catherine’s former lover. Don is dean at a local New England college who relishes the thought that he “doesn’t have to do much” and understands that he will probably never write the book he has talked about for years. “I am ready to embrace mediocrity,” he says.

In the course of introducing each of the participants in this intellectual exercise, Catherine is called “a hot doomsday chick” and Gwen is identified by her husband Don as someone who “gave up drinking and took up talking.” Don also has a few pithy comments of his own: “Men are not hard-wired to follow women,” he says, and then, quoting William Blake: “Excess is the road to enlightenment.”

As each of the characters expresses her beliefs she is suddenly caught up in the romance of the choices she didn’t make. Catherine, who has pursued her career at the expense of her love life, sees Don as “the man who got away” and looks to a lonely and emotionally unfulfilled future.

Gwen has come to resent the paths not taken and fantasizes about going back to school and pursuing a challenging career.

Avery, the student, is caught up in the reflected magic of the Movement, and Alice, Catherine’s mother, who found herself upended by the radical new ideas, nevertheless stayed in an unexciting marriage and in her traditional role as wife and mother.

While the script sometimes reads like a history lecture, it is delivered expertly and with flashes of light and humor so that it remains totally engrossing throughout. The twists and turns of the plot are unexpected and the characters remain likable and credible as they wrestle with the tenets of the Movement and its effects on their own lives.

In addition to top-notch direction by Peter DuBois, who brought his original New York cast to this West Coast premiere, the production has the benefit of a beautiful rolling set design by Alexander Dodge, costumes by Mimi O’Donnell, lighting by Jeff Croiter and Jake DeGroot, and sound by M.L. Dogg.

The only sour note in this production is the title of the play. When I told people about it, everyone responded with, “Who would go to a play with a title like that? It sounds like a fatal sunburn!” (Or a trip to Hell!) But in spite of the title, you really should go. It’s a terrific play!

Rapture, Blister, Burn will continue at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 3 and 8 pm, and Sunday at 2 and 7 pm through September 22nd. Call 310-208-2028 for tickets.

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