If you were to assume that one of the hottest playwrights in Chicago is being interviewed in a trendy downtown coffee house or backstage at a theater, surrounded by hip sycophants…you would be very wrong. In fact, Rebecca Gilman is calling from her Wisconsin home, having moved to “higher ground” (upstairs) because of her sporadic cell service, laughing that “it’s nice, because we can’t get Internet, and often the phone doesn’t work.”
An Alabama native, Gilman moved to Chicago after earning her MFA at the University of Iowa, and quickly was embraced by the city’s theater community. “I was really lucky. I was able to become a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists, and through them I got my first production at Circle Theatre out in Forest Park.”
The Goodman Theatre noticed and responded to her work, Gilman says. “They sort of took me under their wing pretty quickly. We’ve just had an ongoing relationship since then.”
Gilman is also an associate professor of playwriting and screenwriting at Northwestern University. “I always tell my students that finding the theater that responds to your work is really key. It’s sort of a personality thing; I liken it to blind dating,” she laughs. “And the Goodman’s contributions to theater are huge. They give new plays the same import as the classics; not a lot of theaters are so invested in new work.”
But underneath the grateful, easygoing personality and warm southern accent, Gilman is a serious, no-holds-barred talent, whose works often explore dark, intense themes and can be unapologetically controversial. Among her many accolades are multiple Joseph Jefferson awards, a nomination for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and a spot on Time magazine’s 2010 list of the Top Ten Plays of the Decade.
Gilman’s upcoming world-premiere drama, Luna Gale, will be helmed by Goodman artistic director Robert Falls, which marks the fourth collaboration for the formidable pair. “I always feel like when I give a play to Bob, he knows what’s going to work really well—and, in sort of an annoying way, he can also find the faults really quickly,” Gilman says. “He’s able to hear my language or my dialogue in a way that’s really special. He knows what it should sound like. He’s so imaginative and creative on his own, he brings things to the text that I never would have imagined or seen. It’s never some weird, intrusive thing that he’s putting on top of it; it’s always organic.”
Luna Gale is the story of Caroline, a veteran social worker who takes on the case of two teenaged drug addicts accused of neglecting their baby. Her decision to place the infant daughter in the care of the baby’s grandmother exposes family secrets, forcing Caroline to make a risky decision with potentially disastrous consequences.
“The title is the name of the baby who’s being fought over,” Gilman explains. “To me, she represents all of the hope in the play.”
“This play was inspired by a lot of different things,” she continues. “I had seen this map of the world in which everything was labeled by stereotype, and the thing that jumped out at me was the giant Midwestern section of the United States. Instead of saying ‘Midwest,’ it said ‘meth’ and ‘Jesus.’ I kept thinking about the people in what they call the ‘flyover’ part of the country who maybe feel like they don’t matter to anybody at all, and what they turn to for solace, and I felt like it probably came down to drugs or religion for a lot of people. I also had wanted to write a play about a social worker for a really long time, so that sort of helped me put the two things together.”
Like much of Gilman’s work, the production promises to be gripping. “It’s definitely a drama,” she says, “but there’s always comedy in everything I write, I think. It has a lot of plot twists, cliffhangers, and some real maneuvering over the placement of this baby.”
But, most of all, “it’s definitely a Midwestern story,” Gilman says. “I think a lot of times we do get overlooked, so I want to emphasize that we have really great stories here.”
By Rebecca Gilman, directed by Robert Falls
Jan 18–Feb 23, 2014
170 N Dearborn, Chicago