Defending Phyllis Schlafly and exploring the intellectual and emotional complexities of porn and horror films are just some of the topics amusingly explored in Gina Gionfriddo’s “Rapture, Blister, Burn.” It all happens under the umbrella of feminist studies in the insightful comedy onstage at Custom Made Theatre Co.
Women from three generations debate gender roles while considering paths chosen and paths abandoned. The latter point is particularly acute for Gwen (Lauri Smith) and Catherine (Teri Whipple), former college friends who both had relationships with Don (Ryan Hayes) while all were on the grad school teaching track.
Catherine became a successful author and lecturer, choosing to let go of Don to further her career.
Gwen abandoned her studies, married Don and had two children a decade apart.
The trio is unexpectedly reunited when Catherine’s mother Alice (Linda Ayres-Frederick) has a heart attack, bringing Catherine home to care for her in the town where Don is dean at a liberal arts college.
Gionfriddo brews a heady mix of love and regret, greener grass, compromise, self-esteem and self-delusion, accomplishment and acceptance in a rich and deftly crafted script. She offers evolving emotional shadings that are laugh-out-loud funny and rich in human failings, and allow each character dignity and wisdom.
Director Leah S. Abrams’ strong cast breathes fiery life and punches well-earned laughs into Gionfriddo’s script. The actors’ pleasingly nuanced performances show how balances of power shift, and self-awareness visibly ebbs and flows in ways that feel utterly genuine.
Whipple and Smith make wonderful frenemies, first treading carefully with veiled observations, then engaging in full-throttle parries and thrusts. Gwen’s frustrated homemaker toes the conservative line, but never becomes shrill. Catherine’s self-confident career woman is pragmatically solution driven, but gives vent to spasms of emotion.
Between the two, Hayes balances cad and dad in an appealing porn-addicted slacker. Unhappy in his marriage, he’s more than ready to shake things up in an unconventional arrangement, yet without being cruel.
Ayers-Frederick brings a sly comic energy to Catherine’s martini-mixing mother, egging her daughter on to take back what she once had and giving all the women an education in the pros and cons of life pre-feminism.
Picking up the flip side is Amanda Farbstein, whose utterly fearless performance as Avery, Don and Gwen’s outspoken babysitter, is a bright shining light amid a polished ensemble.
Rapture, Blister, Burn
Where: Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. most Thursdays-Saturdays; closes Dec. 17
Tickets: $36 to $39