The aging, hemmed-in Chicago suburb of Forest Park, just 15 traffic-clogged minutes west of the Loop, with its grand old Italian restaurants and hedge-rimmed lawns, is not the kind of place you’d expect to find a progressive storefront theatre premiering Rebecca Gilman’s The Glory of Living, a dark and intensely violent play about a Texan teenage murderess who picks up vagrant girls for her boyfriend’s sexual kicks.
What’s even more unlikely, perhaps, considering the power pyramid that favors major theatre institutions, is that a tiny company like Forest Park’s ensemble-based Circle Theatre would be sharing the prestige of a Rebecca Gilman premiere with the lofty likes of the Goodman Theatre, New York’s Lincoln Center Theater Company and London’s Royal Court Theatre. But then, few playwrights find success as suddenly or as prolifically as Gilman has—and few either care or can afford to be as loyal as she is to the theatre that gave her a start.
Within the last year or so, Gilman has been transformed from a struggling Chicago scribe, who did temp work by day and wrote by night, into one of America’s most talked-about and sought-after playwrights. Theatres are fighting for the rights to do her plays, and the Goodman has put up two of her works in a space of no more than nine months.
Les Waters’ mounting of Spinning into Butter, Gilman’s controversial play about racial issues on a college campus, was an unequivocal hit with Chicago critics and audiences last summer (the Goodman run was extended three times), and Dan Sullivan will direct the second production of the play in July at Lincoln Center. Even before the New York critics check in, there is so much interest from regional theatres that the play is likely to show up on this magazine’s next annual list of the most-produced plays of the season.
Boy Gets Girl, Gilman’s new thriller about a blind date turned terribly wrong, opened on the Goodman main stage in March and appears likely to follow Spinning into Butter’s route to New York in short order. Between those commitments, Gilman somehow found time to write another play (also about murder) for the Circle—The Crime of the Century, her moving portrait of the eight Chicago nurses brutally killed by Richard Speck in 1966, opened in Forest Park last December.
In London, Gilman became the first American ever to win the Evening Standard Award for most promising playwright after The Glory of Living was produced at the Royal Court Theatre in January 1999. The play had already notched the American Theatre Critics Association’s 1998 Osborne Award for the best new work by an emerging playwright.
Commissions are now mounting up. In February, the Prince Charitable Trusts announced that Gilman and the Goodman Theatre will receive the $75,000 Prince Prize for commissioning original work—it will be used to produce Gilman’s next play, provisionally titled The Great Baseball Strike of 1994, during the Goodman’s 2000–01 season in its new building. Kent Thompson, artistic director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, says he is musing over which Gilman play to produce in Montgomery—and he’s also planning on commissioning an entirely new work from the 36-year-old author, who’s rapidly becoming overwhelmed by offers.
A little more than two years ago, though, Gilman was clerking out a living in the Chicago accounting office of Peat/Marwick. And in most professional theatrical circles, her name meant nothing.
December 1996 was a busy month in the Chicago theatre. With a host of shows opening downtown, most of the city’s leading theatre critics had bigger fish to fry than schlepping out to Forest Park for a low-profile Circle Theatre opening, especially since almost no one had heard of the playwright.
Who was she? A slight, unassuming woman with dark hair and a soft Alabama accent, whose gentle demeanor provided no clue whatsoever, then or now, to the intense content of her plays. Gilman was one of a large and varied group of resident writers at Chicago Dramatists, one of the city’s most loyal incubators of young playwrights, but the primary harvest of her career to date had been a stack of some 150 rejection letters from resident theatres, including the Goodman.
“I was writing,” Gilman says, “because it was cheaper than therapy. I never thought I would ever make any money off these things—that never seemed even a possibility for me.” Certainly, her body of work was small and perceived as rather eccentric. Always Open, for instance—penned when Gilman was just 18—is about a disgruntled group of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts employees who decide to suffocate their manager in a big vat of dough.
A native of Trussville, Ala., Gilman had arrived in the Midwest by a circuitous route. She studied at Middlebury College in Vermont before graduating from Birmingham Central College in Alabama and, after various digressions, finally fought her way into the University of Iowa’s MFA program in playwriting. Upon moving to Chicago, she supported her writing habit with a variety of clerical jobs. Aside from a small production in Houston of one of her early efforts, none of her plays had been produced professionally.
That included The Glory of Living. No theatre in town had been willing to touch this dark, unflinching and explicit exploration of child abuse, sexual deviance and serial murder. The piece was all the more disturbing because it was drawn from truth. “The springboard for the play,” Gilman says, “came from a real Alabama murder during my senior year of college. The criminal was a young girl who had not been taught to value her own life, so she could not be expected to value anyone else’s.” In Gilman’s semi-fictional account, the 15-year-old protagonist, Lisa, was a child bride turned into a multiple murderer by her sick husband.
Gilman had a staunch defender in Robin Stanton, artistic director of Chicago Dramatists, who believed passionately in The Glory of Living and shopped it furiously around Chicago, with no success. “I was certain this was a very important piece of writing,” Stanton recalls. “Rebecca is a playwright with real courage.” Circle finally agreed to house the show, in part to get Stanton off its back.
It was the best decision the theatre ever made. Those few folks lucky enough to see Stanton’s premiere call it a revelatory night of theatre, the kind of event that makes a critic want to shout the playwright’s name from the rooftops. As would prove typical in her later works, Gilman laid out her story’s lurid events with almost clinical dispatch, never shrinking from physical depictions of abuse but constantly confounding her audience’s expectations. Instead of sensationalizing the killing spree or indulging in Southern stereotypes, Gilman made the case that we all bear responsibility for young people whose childhoods have been stolen by a society that no longer nurtures its young.
The reviews, phone calls and general buzz quickly reached the new-play offices of the Goodman and Steppenwolf companies. The Goodman moved fast, offering Gilman its McPherson Award, a commission named in honor of late playwright Scott McPherson. Artistic director Robert Falls read Glory of Living and a draft of her next play. He quickly joined the fan club. “Rebecca is both subversive and exciting,” Falls says. “She uses a simple and sparse language with characters that remain unsentimental and truthful. And there’s a real ferocious comic voice behind her writing.”
That ferocity can also be seen in Gilman’s refusal to shy away from the trickiest of themes. In the case of Spinning into Butter, her status as a white woman gave Gilman no qualms about exploring (sometimes in a comic mode) the effects of racism on an East Coast college campus. The play’s protagonist, a youngish, liberal dean of students named Sarah, hears that someone is pinning anonymous racist notes on the dorm room door of one of her college’s few black students (a character that never appears in the play) and is forced to confront her own latent culpability in the misdeed. This seemingly kind and sympathetic character confesses her own veiled racism in a searing second-act monologue that shocked the audience at the Goodman Studio into a silence so complete it seemed born of personal agony.
Gilman’s point, of course, is that liberal intellectuals often talk a good game about diversity, but so fail to have the requisite experience or true understanding of minority experiences, that they end up as part of the problem.
“While the concept of political correctness has made us more sensitive to how we perceive each other,” Gilman says, “there’s also a danger that the rhetoric will be allowed to mask some of our really angry feelings. People are now often afraid to articulate what they actually feel about each other.”
The battleground may be gender rather than race, but objectification and fear are also the main themes of Boy Gets Girl, a gripping page-turner of a play with a thriller-style narrative that at first seems to recall such Hollywood attempts to exploit urban insecurities as Single White Female. The action starts when a single, thirty-something journalist named Theresa is set up by a friend on a blind date. At first the guy seems harmless, even pleasant. But over the course of time he reveals himself to be a dangerous stalker who threatens to unravel every thread of the now-paranoid Theresa’s life.
“The pitfall is the expectations of the genre,” Gilman allows. “You expect someone to get shot and that there will be a neat conclusion in some way or other. I wanted to take the subject seriously and write about it more realistically.”
So the play differs from its Hollywood counterparts in several important ways. Through a host of semi-complicit minor characters (not all of whom are male), Gilman makes the point that the date from hell is not just an isolated jerk, but an inevitable product of a society that relentlessly objectifies women. One of Theresa’s ongoing interview subjects is a filmmaker named Les Kennkat, a character based on Russ Meyer of Supervixens fame, who has an open obsession with women’s breasts. But even as she paints Kennkat guilty as sin, Gilman also makes him into a likeable eccentric.
“I think this play is the flip side to Spinning into Butter,” Gilman says. “It’s not about what it is to objectify but to be objectified. As a society we tend to dehumanize each other, whether through prejudice, sexism, economics or the Internet. At some point we need to stop identifying so much with the things people are trying to sell us and try to think of each other on a more human level.”
That perspective seems to confirm the opinion of Michael Maggio, dean of the theatre school at DePaul University and the Goodman’s associate artistic director, as to what qualities most clearly define Gilman as a playwright. “She seems to have a remarkable capacity to put her finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist,” Maggio posits. “She understands how to write plays that are premised in something that seems immediate and recognizable to her audience, but she finds a way to dig very deeply into the characters and the milieu. And she has a remarkable capacity to hook you into a story.”
In other words, Gilman writes accessible plays with such intriguing plots that the audience finds itself hungry for what is going to happen next—and once she has the viewer under that narrative spell, she does not shirk from exposing complex themes with a strongly feminist sensibility, dispensed with just the right quirky touch of nouveau Southern gothic.
As you read the burgeoning Gilman oeuvre, other common themes emerge. She’s fascinated by crime but is determined that her perpetrators’ actions are never seen as isolated from societal forces. She fights objectification but seems to understand its hold on modern consciousness. She’s never crudely polemical; there’s always a sense of life’s ironies and ambiguities.
But perhaps the most striking (and currently unfashionable) aspect of Gilman’s stance is a warm and sympathetic attitude towards the victims in her plays, especially when their humanity is negated by tensions between society’s liberal and conservative factions. In Crime of the Century (based on the book of the same name by Dennis L. Breo and William Martin), Gilman largely ignored Speck’s criminal motivations and focused instead on the lives of the nurses, lives he stole with such brutality.
“I did not find Richard Speck to be at all interesting,” Gilman says. “He was a jerk, a misogynist and a petty criminal. I did not want to give him stage time.” But the nurses, rendered anonymous by history, were another story.
“The dramatic version so forcibly brought through to me the sorrow and tragedy of all these lives being snuffed out,” says author and Speck prosecutor William Martin, who showed up on Circle’s opening night and was deeply moved by the play. “I had tears in my eyes. The play is a tribute to the nurses, their families and the tragic loss that society suffered by their lives being extinguished.”
Since the original idea to write about Speck had come from a Circle ensemble member, Gilman had no qualms about putting aside more lucrative offers and debuting the work in the suburb that started her rush to fame. “Circle took a risk on me,” she reasons, “when no other theatre was interested.”
Chris Jones writes about theatre for Variety and other publications.