Chicago Theatre Review
Ladies Not for Burning
Rapture, Blister, Burn – Goodman Theatre
At some point in life, often in one’s middle age years, a person begins considering the road not taken, the life one could’ve chosen…but didn’t. There are often fantasies about what might’ve been, wishes for an opportunity to go back and start over and regrets that one didn’t venture down that other fork in the road. In Gina Gionfriddo’s play (which takes its title from the lyrics of a Courtney Love rock ballad), explores that age old feminist debate about whether a woman will have a more fulfilling life with a career or with a husband and children. However, as this play illustrates, every generation of women struggles with this question, and here it’s coupled with a look at the nature of men.
Successful author, lecturer and celebrity, Catherine returns to her New England hometown to care for Alice, her aging mother who’s recovering from a heart attack. Catherine’s arrival gives her a much sought-after break from a busy career at a time in life when she’s starting to question the choices she’s made. While home, she reconnects with Gwen, her best friend and grad school roommate who, while she was away studying in London, stole Catherine’s boyfriend, Don. The couple now seem happily married and are the parents of two young boys. Seeing them together after all these years stirs up desires and unfulfilled regrets within Catherine. When she offers to teach a summer course about the new feminism, while staying at her mother’s home, both Gwen and her 21-year-old, free-thinking babysitter Avery are the only students to enroll. While Alice serves adult refreshments to them everyday at 5:00, some very heady discussions emerge contrasting the views and opinions of Phyllis Schlafly and Betty Friedan, as well as how horror films, especially the slasher movie, has portrayed women through time. Alice enlightens the group by pointing out that in her day a domestic life was the only choice for a woman. Avery explains the choices now available to the young, 21st century woman, while Gwen makes some startling confessions about her marriage. All of these discussions result in Catherine and Gwen deciding to switch places, including giving Don the opportunity to reunite with his former lover. In the end, the women (and Don) learn that when you finally get what you want you often don’t want it anymore.
Gina Gionfriddo’s exciting, very funny new play doesn’t simply present Catherine and Gwen as opposites, or as two sides of the same coin. All manner of ideas flow from her five characters in some of the most piercing and amusingly intellectual dialogue to be heard on a stage. The playwright is really illustrating how difficult it’s now become to have both a successful career while also trying to achieve a satisfying personal life. Today everyone’s expected to be a superhero and do it all, but Ms. Gionfriddo shows us that it may not be possible.
Highly respected local director Kimberly Senior makes her Goodman debut with this play. It’s a piece that not only challenges the talented young director but, as a mother and career woman herself, speaks to her in many ways. Ms. Senior has staged this play alternately with a comfortable style and brisk pacing, knowing precisely when to slow down the tempo in order to drive a point home. Staged upon Jack Magaw’s beautifully detailed set, skillfully lit by Jennifer Schriever and costumed with sass and style by Emily Rebholz, the look of this production is pleasing and polished.
Ms. Senior’s cast is exceptional, from first to last. Jennifer Coombs is lovely, articulate and intuitive as Catherine, knowing when to step back a bit to allow other characters their moments to shine. Ms. Coombs perfectly embodies this intelligent, feminist academic, creating a young woman who seems to have it all, but who constantly questions her decisions. She’s nicely contrasted by Karen James Woditsch’s Gwen, a woman who believes the choices she’s made in life, however shaky, are best for her and her family. She’s confident that being Don’s wife and a mother to two young boys is the kind of full-time career for which she was intended. When offered the opportunity to leave the familiar and explore something new, she’s understandably reluctant at first, but eventually gives it her all. The lessons these two friends learn by the end of this intriguing play will inspire post-show conversations for days to come.
The always wonderful Mary Ann Thebus is radiant and hilarious as Alice. Her sharp observations are delivered with a candor and casualness that are both unexpected and welcomed. Much of the play’s humor comes from Alice and experience has made Ms. Thebus a master; her line delivery is as dry as the martinis she mixes and serves. Cassidy Slaughter-Mason is a breath of fresh air as Avery, the young college dropout who becomes Catherine’s star pupil. Avery’s journey to enlightenment is delightful fun and this lovely young actress wrings every ounce of humor and wisdom from her role. Reminding audiences of Sarah Hyland (Haley Dunphy, on TV’s “Modern Family”), Ms. Mason makes a strong impression, knowing how to get a laugh while making a serious point. And, as the play’s only male, Mark L. Montgomery creates a believable Don Harper, the husband who counters his intellectually unchallenging position as a school Dean with evenings spent smoking pot and watching porn. Not aspiring to more in life than a comfortable home and family and a wife who’s more-or-less in charge of everything, Mr. Montgomery’s Don becomes a willing pawn in these women’s search for what they really want.
Trying to have it all, negotiating a balance between one’s ideals and reality, becomes the struggle that playwright Gina Gionfriddo explores in this brilliant play. Seen by some as an homage to Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles,” this play is unique, humorous and witty and offers many new, thought-provoking ideas. While audiences may label this beautifully acted, deftly directly comic drama as a feminist play, the truth is it’s really about both genders and the quest for getting everything life has to offer. These ladies may not be for burning, but they certainly do sizzle.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 17-February 22 by the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Goodman box office, by calling them at 312-443-3800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org/Rapture.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.