Lives that derail. Lives that never get up to speed. Ordinary people. Challenging circumstances. Playwright Rebecca Gilman is at home describing worlds in which folks find it tough to stand as straight as everyone thinks they should, or struggle to find a measure of contentment. In her play Luna Gale, a bright but drug-addicted couple attempt to retain custody of their child. Boy Gets Girl examines the idea of romantic pursuit when a blind date turns into a living nightmare. Malaise and crisis may be her territory, but rather than sit in judgment of the characters that inhabit it, the Chicago-based Gilman maintains a critical reserve, leaving audiences to wonder what they might do if they came up short in life’s roll of the dice.
Centered on the lives of six young women in a small Wisconsin town, Twilight Bowl explores the ways in which circumstance and attitude lead to doubt, denial and delay. Set in a bowling alley, the play explores what happens when what-if aspiration is shadowed by what-happens reality. “I grew up in a small town in Alabama, and my husband and I spend a lot of time in Wisconsin,” says Gilman. “When I see news reports about rural America, I don’t always feel like they capture a place entirely. I’m trying to explore the divide between the women who call this Wisconsin town home and the character who comes in from Winnetka.”
Although Twilight Bowl is not a direct commentary on our current, highly divisive political climate, it does examine the social tensions that rise to the surface in the simplest conversation when a culture is not at ease. “Misunderstanding goes both ways right now. Not understanding how we come off to a different group of people is pandemic. I think people in urban centers look at people in rural areas and think, ‘how sad, you’ll never get out of that small town’. But a lot of people who live in small towns genuinely love their small towns, and they have no desire to leave. That’s part of what I wanted to write about. We all have these assumptions of what ‘the good life’ is—and it’s actually only what’s good for you.”
While playwrights often convey existential depths in elevated and even poetic speech, Gilman teases universal truths out of everyday conversation. “I’m not writing in a heightened language,” asserts Gilman. “I never have. I write in the style of Naturalism, which was invented by Émile Zola with the sole purpose of getting us to look at the factors that determine our lives. I am really concerned how my characters are determined by their heredity and by their environment. And if our lives are not going well, thinking about how we can change those factors. That’s my agenda. I take it as a compliment when people say my plays sound conversational or idiomatic. That means I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve.”
Although not every Gilman play focuses on the marginal and unprivileged, the playwright states that “all my plays deal with class in some way or another.” And while she is serious in her intentions, it’s a subject she can laugh about when she thinks about her own life. “I was recently at a fundraiser for a very worthy cause, sitting at a table with people I didn’t know, all of whom were wealthy donors. Someone asked where I was from, and I said I grew up in Alabama. And she said, ‘Not that you’d own up to that.’ And obviously, I just did. People remark that I don’t have an accent, which I think is supposed to be a compliment—like, ‘Oh, you’re not a complete idiot. And you wear shoes!’ That’s the kind of thing I’ve dealt with my entire life, so that’s why I write about it.” Human history is a long series of misunderstandings. But the opportunity for empathy has never been greater.
This piece was written by Thomas Connors for Playbill.