For nearly two decades, playwright Rebecca Gilman’s emotionally compelling dramas have made for thought-provoking nights of theater on the Goodman’s stages. Plays like Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976; Luna Gale; A True History of the Johnstown Flood; The Crowd You’re in With and Blue Surge, among others, have explored class distinctions in both contemporary and historical American life. Gilman’s characters inhabit morally complex worlds, often facing tough decisions. Should a factory worker accept a promotion even at his coworkers’ expense? Will a couple decide to have children, despite their hesitations? Can a social worker entrust an infant to her loving, but meth-addicted parents?
In Rebecca Gilman’s plays, clear answers rarely emerge. Gilman’s newest play, Twilight Bowl, originated as a commission from the Big Ten schools, spurred by a desire to produce plays with roles for female acting students (who make up the bulk of many theater programs). Each year these universities together commission an American playwright to write a play with many young female characters. Then, each individual theater department can decide whether to include a given play in its season. As a professor in Northwestern University’s Writing for the Screen and Stage MFA program, Gilman cherishes her interactions with the younger generation, and jumped at the opportunity to write a play about young women. “I get so much from being around them,” she says. “I know they don’t act around me the same way they act around each other, but I love what they bring to my life. So I have a sense of this age group.” Twilight Bowl depicts glimpses into the lives of cousins Sam and Jaycee and their friends, who have grown up in the fictional town of Reynolds, Wisconsin—also the setting for Gilman’s Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976. “I grew up in a small town,” Gilman explains. “I know a lot of people who didn’t go to college and have a career, and I feel like our society has decided that they are less successful, or that their lives are less valuable. But I think they’re leading very successful lives.” The women in the play, in their late teens and early 20s, are just beginning to build their futures, making decisions that will either propel them towards conventional success, or lead them down a different path. Sam has won a bowling scholarship to Ohio State University. Among her peer group, attending an out-of-state school is a luxury—but not one necessarily coveted by her hometown friends, who prefer family and religion over continued education. Their values sharply contrast with those of Maddy, Sam’s college friend who comes to visit. “Maddy is an outsider,” Gilman states. “She went to New Trier High School and has been pressured to succeed her whole life.” While Maddy enjoys more material comforts than the other women, she struggles just as mightily with forging a life path and maintaining positive relationships.
Like Gilman’s other work, Twilight Bowl offers no easy answers. The women’s paths are all fraught with probable difficulties—but also, ripe with possibilities and hope. Gilman explains, “I wanted to write a play about young women who are figuring out who they are.