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On playwright Rebecca Gilman and “A True History of the Johnstown Flood”

Rebecca Gilman, the Chicago playwright who gained national prominence a decade ago with her drama “Spinning into Butter,” is back with a new play at the Goodman examining a 19th-century disaster whose lessons feel hauntingly contemporary

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Class acts: In earlier plays, such as (from top) Dollhouse and Spinning into Butter, Gilman depicted the affluent and their problems.
Class acts: In earlier plays, such as (from top) Dollhouse and Spinning into Butter, Gilman depicted the affluent and their problems.
If critics question whether Gilman’s characters’ selfish candor is a gimmick, it should be clarified that her own candor in conversation seems entirely authentic. The Alabama native—the daughter of a secretary and a bookkeeper who regularly took her to musicals at the Jewish Community Center in Birmingham—uses a disarmingly unpretentious vocabulary to talk about her chosen profession. “I think theatre is still a middle- to upper-class art form,” Gilman says in her sandy chirp of a voice. “I love Glory of Living, but it’s one of my least produced plays, I think, because poverty is depressing to theatre audiences, and they’re likely to think plays in trailer parks are distasteful.”

It was a lesson she learned early. Gilman recalls that when the Goodman’s former literary manager, Susan Booth, first approached her about writing for the theatre, Booth said, “The Glory of Living is a great play, and we’ll never do anything like it here.” A scriptwriting instructor on the Northwestern University faculty, Gilman says she feels obligated to steel her students to this reality.

The Goodman’s artistic director, Robert Falls, who directs Johnstown and who has shepherded much of Gilman’s career, concedes that most theatregoers don’t care to be confronted with the unfamiliar. “I think our audiences are pretty smart,” Falls says, “but audiences have a natural tendency to want to see plays about themselves.”

Her departure from such subject matter may make Gilman a moving target for critics once again. Because she has so often been pigeonholed by her gender in a male-dominated craft, it’s worth noting that, a decade into her fame, it is difficult to tell where she falls on a continuum as a feminist—and this is most likely a compliment. I can vividly remember when many of my female friends and I were wildly offended by her 2005 revisionist take on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, set in Lincoln Park, which ended with an ironic addendum. After Nora, the heroine, walks out on her infantilizing husband—that final door slam in the stage directions is one of the most famous endings in all of Western dramatic literature—Gilman’s Nora returns to her home and instead tells her man, “You’re gonna pay for this.”

On the other hand, Gilman’s favorite character on 30 Rock (the only show she follows) is Jenna, the cruelly, sarcastically amplified prime-time bimbo starlet played by Jane Krakowski. Even among 30 Rock’s devoted fans, there are few enthusiasts for this daringly unpleasant female scion. Yet Gilman throws her head back laughing while recounting Jenna moments.

This is the same Gilman who admits to feeling uneasy about the community theatre mockumentary Waiting for Guffman—beloved by most theatre practitioners—because she thinks the humor comes at the expense of hard-working, well-intentioned small-town folk. Gilman launched her career by paying uncommonly focused attention to such people before guiding tours through academic ivory towers and immaculately decorated living rooms in her later works.

The question is whether her return to society’s lower depths in Johnstown will open a new floodgate.

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