Elaine Robinson, Courtney Lomelo, Christina Austin Lopez in Rapture, Blister, Burn at 4th Wall.

In Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn, Catherine is a successful academic played by Courtney Lomelo, who, in spite of tons of education, doesn’t have all the answers. The play opens as she drunkenly reconnects with her former graduate school friends Don and Gwen—who have not only married, but now have two boys. Apparently Catherine once had a thing with Don, but while she was out on some fabulous London fellowship, Gwen closed the deal.

For her part, Gwen (Elaine Robinson) matured into kind of a harridan. She is hard on Don (Nick Farco), his drinking, and his lack of ambition as a dean at a little-known school. She says “he likes to surround himself with losers,” seeming to miss the irony of herself being part of that group. Uptight and shrill, she seems to have an unlimited reserve of resentment, as she herself dropped out of graduate school to become a full-time mother.

It's not hard to see how the two women romanticize each other’s lives. Catherine thinks she has missed out on having a family, and Gwen thinks maybe she has missed out on some kind of glamorous academic career. This is “the grass is always greener” phenomenon amped up for the modern day, in which more choices for women seems to add up to a higher percentage of mistakes to be made. So begins the downward spiral into early middle-age regret. For women, this is often the road not taken of family or career—as if having both is some kind of impossibility. For this play, it sure seems that way.

The play is directed by Kim Tobin-Lehl, and I loved the pace and the impeccable timing between the characters as they struggle to get the things that they think they want, but not necessarily the things that suit them best. With Kevin Rigdon's convincing sets of middle-class domesticity played against Catherine's chic digs, all sorts of issues swirl: the tick-tock of the biological clock, the arrested development of men, the merits of first-wave and contemporary versions of feminism, and the occasional hypocrisy of academic writing. It’s pretty impressive how the playwright shows how these things are connected, related, and an outgrowth of our struggles with notions of professional and personal success.

There is a madcap quality to much of the unbelievable plot, but who cares? It is perfect for embodying the hysterical nature of midlife or almost-midlife crises. Consider the surprising role of Avery, played by Christina Austin Lopez, Gwen’s ex-babysitter and Catherine’s new student in a seminar for two, with Gwen as the other unlikely participant. Avery is twenty-something and knows everything, and seeing her consider the ideas of writers ranging from Betty Friedan and her feminine mystique to Nancy Friday’s women’s room secrets to Phyllis Schlafly’s iron-clad conservatism is something to behold. From politics to pornography, the playwright illuminates and sometimes satirizes the kaleidoscopic incarnations of feminist thought. It is not lost on the audience that Avery’s from-the-hip reactions are not only funny, but make modern academe look pretentious and even ridiculous at times. Catherine’s classes may focus on the crumbling of Western civilization, but we don’t need a class to know that.

Catherine’s studies eventually emerge as a form of avoidant behavior—one that can go on a little too long, and then voila, you forgot to have a family. Gwen’s intellectual insecurity spawns a plan to finish her degree and live in the big city, but that gets harder to do once three other people are involved. Hey, let’s face it: It's not uncommon to want to switch lives with someone else. In the end, Rapture, Blister, Burn reminds us that there is always a cost to every decision we make, but “you cannot outsource love.” Whether your family is makeshift or traditional, the decisions we make might begin in rapture and end in being burned, but this fine cast makes it all worth it.

 Thru March 23. Tickets from $17. 4th Wall Theatre Co., 1824 Spring St. 832-767-4991. More info and tickets at 4thwalltheatreco.com.

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