“The generations change. But the choices remain the same.’’
That was the movie poster tagline — glib, catchy, possibly even containing a grain of truth — for 1977’s “The Turning Point.’’ Written by Arthur Laurents and directed by Herbert Ross, the film starred Shirley MacLaine as a woman who walked away from a potential career in ballet to raise a family, then envies the friend, played by Anne Bancroft, who danced her way to stardom. The dancer, meanwhile, battles her own wave of misgivings about the family life she missed out on.
Flash forward to the present day, and to Gina Gionfriddo’s “Rapture, Blister, Burn,’’ now at Huntington Theatre Company under the direction of longtime Gionfriddo collaborator Peter DuBois.
Where “The Turning Point’’ and others of its ilk generated sudsy melodrama from the tough choices women confront, Gionfriddo has crafted a shrewd, incisive, thoroughly winning comedy. Sharp-eyed, big-hearted, and sure-footed, Gionfriddo ranges across the topography of the women’s movement — and the lives shaped by that movement — while demonstrating the confidence to embrace contradictions of all kinds.
“Rapture’’ is as talky as all get-out, but ah, what talk. The play’s protagonists range across three generations, and they are a highly verbal bunch. Catherine (Kate Shindle), a high-flying academic superstar, cultural provocateur, and TV pundit in her early 40s, has returned to a small New England town to take care of her mother, Alice (Nancy E. Carroll), who is recovering from a heart attack. This puts Catherine back in the orbit of Gwen (Annie McNamara), her onetime graduate school classmate.
Catherine is unmarried. Gwen has two children and is married, not all that happily, to the man she won away from Catherine years ago, Don (Timothy John Smith). Don is not much of a catch: an inveterate porn-watcher and pot smoker, he somehow holds down a job as a dean at a liberal arts college. At Gwen’s behest, he has landed Catherine a teaching appointment at the college. It turns out that she has only two students in her first class: Gwen and Avery (Shannon Esper), the 21-year-old baby sitter for Gwen and Don.
For all her celebrity, Catherine is feeling the tug of regret at not having a family; Gwen, for her part, wishes she had finished grad school. “I guess the grass is always greener,’’ Gwen says to Catherine early in the play. “It’s just … It’s what you said, right? It’s that fortysomething thing where you start thinking about the life not lived.’’
As that line suggests, “Rapture’’ partly revolves around the ever-popular game of what-if, that fantasy of trading places which may be familiar to middle-agers for whom a groove has become a rut.
But Gionfriddo has more than midlife malaise on her mind. The play explores the tension and tradeoffs between career and family, the evolution of the women’s movement, the exact nature of Betty Friedan’s message, the arguments of ERA opponent Phyllis Schlafly, the unsettling matter of pornography, and the dilemma of whether a relationship can ever really be 50-50. (Though Catherine is a feminist, she says feminism may have left unanswered the question of “how two empowered people are supposed to negotiate all this fantastic equality’’).
These aren’t new topics, but Gionfriddo gives them fresh life and finds laughs in surprising places. DuBois’s direction is just about note-perfect. Shindle’s portrayal of Catherine is a skillful blend of self-confidence and self-doubt, while McNamara, playing the most censorious and least sympathetic person onstage, keeps Gwen from straying entirely into caricature. Smith captures Don’s lassitude while also conveying a sense of the magnetism that makes two such dissimilar women consider him worth pursuing.
As Alice, Carroll utilizes her wonderful comic timing to the fullest. Esper is just right as Avery, the adventurous millennial who has a way — unnerving to her elders — of cutting through cant. It is Avery who challenges Gwen and Catherine across the generational divide: “So is the message that women are [screwed] either way? You either have a career and wind up lonely and sad, or have a family and wind up lonely and sad?’’
It’s more complicated than that, of course, and Gionfriddo gives full weight to the complexities on all sides. “Rapture, Blister, Burn’’ has been compared to Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles.’’ Gionfriddo wrote last year in The New York Times: “I accept that my play is a homage to ‘The Heidi Chronicles,’ but I swear I didn’t mean it to be.’’ Yet it is an homage of sorts. Like Wasserstein, Gionfriddo exudes compassion for her characters. She knows that their choices, whether meager or abundant, are never easy.