Rebecca Gilman’s play Luna Gale opens at the Goodman Theatre in January.
Inspiration can appear in the strangest places. For playwright Rebecca Gilman—whose Luna Gale opens January 18 at the Goodman Theatre—one such spot was the emergency room of an Oregon hospital, where her fellow patients included a meth-addled young couple. “They were a mess,” recalls Gilman, who had injured her ankle hiking with her husband. “The young woman was talking on her cell phone in what sounded like a drug deal. Then she got a call—I think it might have been her mother—and suddenly she was giving instructions about her children. Her demeanor changed; she seemed competent and together. I looked at her and thought, Is it possible you’re a good mother? Despite the fact that you’re a meth addict and your boyfriend is completely passed out next to you?”
Gilman, one of the most widely produced playwrights in the country and whose race-driven drama Spinning Into Butter was made into a 2008 movie starring Sarah Jessica Parker, had been wanting to pen a piece about social workers for years, but never hit on a plot until that day in the ER. “I was just really interested in how social workers have no power and a ton of power. They can’t save the world, but they can say, ‘I’m taking your kid away from you.’”
The Goodman has produced seven of Rebecca Gilman’s plays, including The Crowd You’re In With.
With Luna Gale, Gilman presents a bright but drug-addicted couple struggling to keep their child with the help of a social worker burdened by a less-than-perfect past and a freely expressed prejudice against the Bible-banging ways of the grandmother seeking custody. Although touched with dark humor like much of Gilman’s work, the show is a serious exploration of a system in which every participant is, in some way, a victim.
“Rebecca uses strong social situations as backgrounds and then she transcends them,” observes Goodman artistic director Robert Falls, who helms the current production. “For example, Boy Gets Girl seems to be about a stalker, but it’s really about a single woman navigating a male-dominated world. Blue Surge, which starts out seemingly to be about sex, about a cop and a young prostitute, turns out to be a play about class. Her plays are not generally upbeat. They are dark and emotionally devastating. That’s just Rebecca.”
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Gilman, an associate professor of playwriting and screenwriting at Northwestern University, is no stranger to the Goodman; Luna Gale is the seventh of her plays the theater has staged since 1999 and her fourth outing with Falls. “He just hears my language,” relates Gilman. “He hears the play the way I hear it in my head.”
For Falls, who was sold on Gilman after seeing her breakout show The Glory of Living, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, having the playwright in the rehearsal room is a particularly satisfying experience. “I think she’s among the best, if not the best writer to be in a room with because she’s practical and extremely unsentimental. She knows exactly what she wants.” January 18 to February 23, 2014, Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., 312-443-3800