A Goodman Field Guide to Rebecca Gilman

Swing Stage is on stage October 7 – November 13

By Caroline Michele Uy

In just over 25 years of collaboration, Rebecca Gilman is the Goodman Theatre’s most produced living playwright, with, as of Swing State, 10 mainstage productions, including eight world premieres. Her work is known for deeply complex and surprisingly intense themes and characters, while appearing quietly unassuming on the surface level. In charting through her many titles, it becomes startlingly clear how much Gilman draws inspiration from her immediate surroundings. Similar to the author herself, her plays traverse rural and urban environments and depict characters from all walks of life. She is a keen and watchful observer of the human condition, and her skill in idiomatic and conversational realism is one of the many attributes that add to the profound resonance of her work.

In the early 90s, Gilman could be found temping behind the secretarial desk of the Peat Warwick Loop offices. Although the Alabama native had garnered a group of earnest supporters from the Chicago Dramatists Workshop, who championed her work to major theater companies, it was a small storefront, the Circle Theatre in Forest Park, that granted the young playwright her Chicago debut in 1996 with a production of The Glory of Living, which would eventually be a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was a small but heavily celebrated production, making a lasting impression on the theater scene and kickstarting Gilman’s career.

As the commissions and awards began to flow in, the Goodman laid a solid foundation of what would become an artistic home for Gilman. The theater quickly issued her two commissions, which would become Spinning Into Butter, directed by Les Waters, which premiered in May 1999; and Boy Gets Girl in April 2000, directed by Michael Maggio. Already with these early plays, Gilman exhibits a broad spectrum of subject matter, drawn from the playwright’s personal experiences of the world. For instance, The Glory of Living, a harrowing piece of moral brutality, sexual deviance and psychological suppression, pulls from a real Alabama murder case that occurred during Gilman’s senior year in college. Set in trailer parks of the Deep South, it stands in stark contrast to Spinning Into Butter, which portrays the latent racism of white Northeastern collegiate liberals and the objectification inherent in racial othering. Similarly set in the rarefied backdrop of the New York publishing industry, Boy Gets Girl, Gilman’s last piece in the old Goodman theater, imagines a blind date turned living nightmare, examining stalking, sexism and the problematic aspects of romantic pursuits simmering just below the veneer of polite society. With each of these pieces, Gilman’s deft and talented hand strikes a careful balance, keeping the pieces from sliding into mere melodrama, soap opera or superficial “issue” plays. Simultaneously, her humanist touch also demands compassion from audiences for even the most seemingly depraved characters.

The turn of the century saw a continuation of the Goodman’s close relationship with Gilman, as Blue Surge became a part of the inaugural season at the new Dearborn location in 2001. The production also saw the beginnings of her creative collaboration with Robert Falls. It was the birth of a fruitful partnership, as Falls would program seven additional Gilman productions as Artistic Director and direct all but two of them himself. Blue Surge expounded on Gilman’s virtuosity for even-handed drama about sensational subjects—here, the illicit relationship between a police officer and a prostitute—as well as her ability to illuminate the intricacies of social class, a prevailing theme in all of her work. Her 2005 Dollhouse, an updated reimagining of the classic Henrik Ibsen masterpiece, A Doll’s House, paints Nora and her family as suburban Chicago yuppies, obsessed with outward status and materialism, demonstrating the still pertinent themes of Ibsen’s original work for the new century.

Continuing with the Chicago focus, the 2009 The Crowd You’re In With, directed by Wendy C. Goldberg, is set in a backyard barbeque on the North Side, where friends debate the pros and cons of parenthood. Though seemingly simple, Gilman’s linguistic precision and articulation bring the conversation to life, sustaining and charging the entire drama with subtext and authenticity. Her final play of the decade, the 2010 A True History of the Johnstown Flood, seems like a departure from her realistic and modern-day plays, set in Pennsylvania in the 1889, but even here, Gilman utilizes observations of more modern natural catastrophes, such as Hurricane Katrina, to paint an incisive drama examining the stark class inequity and environmental mistreatment leading up to the historical disaster. During the following decade, Gilman officially became a member of the Goodman’s Artistic Collective, a group of distinguished theater directors, playwrights and actors, with whom the theater frequently collaborates. Her first piece after joining the collective, Luna Gale in 2014, presents an arresting story of childhood trauma and faith within a community caught up in an interfamily custodial battle. The play examines the difficulty of doing the “right thing,” when real human compassion and care are placed at odds with the murkier realities of addiction, assault and burnout.

More recently, Gilman’s focus has concentrated on small-town Wisconsin, where she and her husband spend much of their time. Soup, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976, produced at the Goodman in 2016, and Twilight Bowl, developed in the New Stages festival in 2017 and premiering in 2019, both take place in the fictional town of Reynolds, Wisconsin. Set, as the name implies, in the late 1970s, Soups, Stews examines the shifting economic landscape in the wake of a major corporate takeover, which causes disruptive rifts between community and family members. Twilight Bowl, directed by Erica Weiss, depicts the same town decades later. Its six young adult characters showcase the prohibitive financial and educational barriers especially salient in small towns, where similar backgrounds cannot always overcome hidden inequities. Swing State, set in the fictional Wisconsinite Cardiff Township, continues this line of investigation into America’s heartland, where the personal and political become so intertwined. While many urbanites may write off rural towns as “backwards” and the people who live there as “stuck,” Gilman’s work realistically demonstrates the importance of these complex environments, which possess great influence over the nation as a whole, as well as the love many residents have for their community.

While Gilman writes about bleak issues and imperfect people at emotional or societal extremes, her writing stems from a real and compassionate perspective. Rather than ascend into lofty or poetic speeches, Gilman’s characters uncover revelatory truths while discussing the weather or sharing milkshakes or deciding if the chicken on the grill is done. Her settings are places we’ve been and her characters are people we know—family, friends, neighbors and, of course, ourselves. Gilman’s ability to tackle big issues through everyday stories has made her a long-time favorite of the Goodman and a shining fixture of the national theater scene.

Caroline Michele Uy is the Literary/Dramaturgy Apprentice for Goodman Theatre.

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