Before I met playwright Rebecca Gilman to discuss her newest work, I prepared myself to discuss some dark topics. A common thread in her widely performed, often gritty and self-described “naturalistic” works is violence against women, such as in her most critically acclaimed play, The Glory of Living (1998), about a female serial killer. We were meeting during a recent rehearsal break at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, which was about to debut Luna Gale, about a meth-addict mother confronting the the foster-care system.
But Gilman, 49, brought up the topic of comic-book super heroes, specifically Wonder Woman. She was discussing the importance of making her main female characters flawed in order to be more convincing—as in “Luna Gale, a 50ish social worker who often gets frustrated with her job.” She adds,
I feel like in our culture, we set people up as these sort of heroic overachievers—or people who are saints and completely selfless. And I don’t think anyone is that. I think that everybody is flawed. A lot of people do the best they can to help people. But it’s difficult. You get in your own way, and you get tired and you get mad and you get frustrated.
I just think it’s much more interesting to look at how flawed and complex people are. Like the Marvel comics kind of get it right in a weird way because all the superheroes have some weird problem. I mean, they at least acknowledge the Incredible Hulk has a real rage problem.
I asked if that’s a reason why the character of Wonder Woman, who lacks demons, hasn’t been the subject of her own Hollywood movie yet, after years of false starts. “Nobody has made the right female superhero,” says Gilman. “She isn’t going to suddenly start drinking too much because she has a dark moment. She is just going to fly around in the invisible plane.”
Gilman also embraces complexity when writing about feminist issues, whether directly—the clearest example being her widely performed Boy Gets Girl, a chilling drama about stalking—or more indirectly, such as portraying the full humanity of violence survivors:
I think in works by men, often violence against women is violence perpetrated by a protagonist against some secondary or ancillary character. So the women aren’t fully realized in a way that makes you feel the effects of that violence. And I guess in my plays it’s from the point of view of the woman every single time. So hopefully it has more resonance.
I asked her to explain why she writes so often about violence against women. While she said that she “never really thought about it as a theme, of course it is:
[At the Goodman] we had a social worker come speak with us, just to get a sense of what [the main character] was like, as part of the research in rehearsals. And she quoted a statistic. She said that one in three women in the U.S. is the victim of some sort of sexual abuse. And that that’s a broad spectrum from being physically abused at one end and then I guess the milder cases … of being exposed to something inappropriate. But it’s still a huge number. … So I guess that’s part of why it’s influenced my work. It’s just a fact of life for so many women, unfortunately.
Another related theme that permeates her work is class. Gilman explains this focus as “a no-brainer of what’s wrong with our country” and her own “ambiguous class origins.” The daughter of a Jewish father and a mother from a Baptist background, she grew up in a small town outside of Birmingham, Ala.:
I think in terms of my town, we were well off. And then for high school, my parents sent us to a private school in Birmingham. And suddenly we went from being the sort of well-off people in this small town to being the poor kids from the sticks in the private school. So I think I have always been aware of how money gives you status in our country and it’s sort of easily won or lost.
She said that in Luna Gale class is at the forefront:
If you end up with a social worker in your house, you’re probably poor. Because rich people just have so many other options and so many other ways to get around those issues. … The abuse of women is pandemic across class, but the rich people who have these issues don’t end up in the news, basically. Because they don’t end up with the police at their door. They don’t end up with a social worker taking their kids away … They can get real therapy. They can get real rehab. And they can get the things that money can buy to help you out or cover things up.
Gilman’s next production, a world premiere of Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976 for the Repertory Theater of St. Louis in March, is her first play to focus directly on the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. Her mother helped inspire a character of that era “who is suddenly discovering a new power, and a new sense of self”—a woman whose feminism “shakes up this family.”
Luna Gale runs until February 23 at the Goodman Theatre.
Paula Kamen is the author of four books, including All in My Head: An Epic Quest To Cure An Unrelenting, Totally Unreasonable, And Only Slightly Enlightening Headache. Her first two books were about Gen X women and feminism, including Feminist Fatale: Voices from the Twentysomething Generation Explore the Future of the Women’s Movement (1991), noted as the first “Third Wave” feminist book.