If you attempt to summarize a Rebecca Gilman play for someone who’s not already familiar with her work, you run the risk of sounding like you’re describing an after-school special or, possibly, an episode of Law and Order. A Gilman play usually features a group of strong-minded characters caught up in situations beyond their control, leading to serious moral dilemmas. So far her characters have dealt with racism (Spinning Into Butter), stalking (Boy Gets Girl), prostitution (Blue Surge), materialism and debt (Dollhouse), midcareer malaise (The Sweetest Swing in Baseball), and whether to have children (The Crowd You’re in With). Her latest, Luna Gale, fits with the rest of the group: briefly described, it’s about a social worker trying to determine the fate of a six-month-old baby.
And yet, once you experience them, Gilman’s plays, at their best, amount to more than dramatic explorations of controversial issues where characters function less as people than embodiments of different points of view. Gilman never seems to forget that she’s writing about human beings.
“Luna Gale is not a play about social work or the failure of the system,” explains Robert Falls, the artistic director of the Goodman Theatre and one of Gilman’s most frequent collaborators and ardent admirers; he is helming Luna Gale. “That’s the backdrop. Rebecca’s work is about the human comedy. It encompasses tragedy and comedy and humanity: what makes people complex. The heroines of her plays are thrust into moral dilemmas. They’re not bad, right or wrong. They’re struggling to do the best they can.”
Gilman, who is 49 and originally from Alabama (she still retains a slight accent), lives in Andersonville and teaches at Northwestern. She has an MFA in playwriting from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and moved to Chicago 20 years ago to take a job in educational testing. The Circle Theatre in Forest Park produced her first play in 1996. Based on a real case in Alabama, The Glory of Living was a grim and disturbing but also compassionate portrait of a teenage girl who procures other girls for her husband to rape. Then she kills them. The play marked the beginning of Gilman’s career as a professional playwright and also her long association with the Goodman: upon seeing it, Falls felt a strong affinity with Gilman and her work and commissioned a new play. This became Spinning Into Butter, which premiered in 1999 and became her first big hit. Since then, the Goodman has launched six more of her plays, several featuring Mary Beth Fisher, who plays the lead role in Luna Gale.
Gilman first began thinking about the backdrop of Luna Gale several years ago when she saw a Frontline documentary about social workers in Maine. “They had such absolute power,” she remembers. “So much of what happened depended on them. The only clear social policy is how to deal with problems after everything else has failed and a kid’s in danger. They don’t deal with the bigger issues that lead to those situations.”
But the characters—and the play—didn’t come to her until several years later, in an emergency room in Oregon. She was waiting to see a doctor about a sprained ankle. Sitting across from her were two kids strung out on meth.
“The young woman got a phone call. It was about her kids. Someone was babysitting them. She seemed nuts, and suddenly she was competent. The formula was in the fridge. I thought, wow, maybe she’s not a bad mom. But that gets back to how do you judge? Do you trust your instinct? Do you trust people?”
That incident became the very first scene of Luna Gale. The two young meth heads are Luna’s parents, Karlie and Peter. Luna, however, is not at home with a babysitter. She’s in the back with a doctor, getting treated for severe diarrhea and dehydration. And the observer is not a curious playwright but instead a harried and overworked social worker named Caroline who has already made her first decision: Luna will not be going home with Karlie and Peter. The obvious next move would be to send the baby to live with her grandmother, Karlie’s mother, Cindy, who, despite being what Caroline calls “a crazy Christian,” has a steady job and a clean house and is willing to take care of Luna until Karlie and Peter get through rehab and pull themselves together. But Karlie objects vehemently, almost violently. (“I don’t want her completely fucked like I was.”) Caroline, who has been a caseworker for 25 years, an extraordinarily long time, and who, in the opinion of her condescending young boss, has a tendency to get overinvolved with her clients, has a gut feeling that Karlie’s not altogether wrong.
“The fun of writing plays,” Gilman says, “is that you have to inhabit everyone’s point of view. Everybody, no matter how hideous, thinks they’re justified. Why people do the thing they do—unless they’re a sociopath, everyone thinks they have a good reason. That’s why I love to write plays. I get to write reasons.” (The actors enjoy it, too. “People with strong points of view are fun to play,” says Fisher.)
Gilman’s critics, both in this paper and elsewhere, have complained that her characters’ points of view break down too neatly and schematically, more like a debate than real drama. She leaves herself open to similar charges with Luna Gale, but she says that she had no idea about the characters’ secrets or the various twists the plot would take when she first sat down to write. “I know the first two or three scenes,” she says, “but that’s why I’m slow, because things reveal themselves.”
Gilman’s process involved plenty of research, both interviewing former caseworkers and looking at materials online. “I tell my students not to use the Internet,” she says, “but there’s a whole lot of stuff on the Internet: caseworker manuals, court documents, surveys kids filled out about their caseworkers. There’s so much paperwork, so many forms.” (One of the manuals makes a cameo appearance in act two.) The sheer amount of material was almost overwhelming. “This much energy, this many resources, and at the end there’s no strategy, no preventative medicine. You’re treating a full-blown disease.”
“There’s nothing in the play that would be a surprise to anyone in the field,” Falls adds. “It’s sad and horrible.”
In rehearsal, Falls has been trying to maintain the same sense Gilman had when writing: that the characters are living their lives instead of having their words and actions arranged for them by a playwright determined to show all sides of an issue. “I prefer to let a play develop slowly and naturally happen,” he says. A social worker visited the rehearsal room to talk with the cast; Fisher in particular observed the way she thought before she spoke in order to maintain her professionalism and not betray any feelings or prejudices. Caroline’s ability—or inability—to do this will affect Luna’s fate, as well as her own. “Caroline is at a crisis point in her life,” Falls observes. “Her decisions, whether they’re good or bad, make the play.”
And whether Fisher, Falls, and Gilman are able to convince their audience that Caroline is the one making those decisions will make Luna Gale a play, not a documentary or an after-school special.