The Grey Zone

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luna gale goodmanOver the years I’ve had a rollercoaster relationship with the plays of Rebecca Gilman.  As an avid fan and advocate of Chicago theater, I’m thrilled that despite her national renown and her Pulitzer Prize nomination, she continues to live and work and premiere her latest works in hometown Chicago.  But as I said when writing about a 2009 production of her Blue Surge which I admired: “I’m still not completely sold on her plays (I feel some of her writing comes off academic and intellectual versus emotional and visceral, see Spinning into ButterDollhouse, etc.)”. And in 2010’s True History of the Johnstown Flood, truly one of my most deplorable theatrical experiences, the writing was also chaotic and confounding.  But I think after all these years, I’ve finally come across a Rebecca Gilman play that I really, really like, no, make that really, really love: Luna Gale, in a world premiere production at the Goodman Theatre, is extraordinary, the first must-see play of 2014– emotional and visceral, yes, and also intelligent, urgent, complex, painted on a canvas of varying hues of grey, full of characters deep with flaws, warts, and scars, but kindnesses too. If you call yourself a theater lover, you’d be a fool to miss Luna Gale.

I think the greatest pleasure of Luna Gale and Gilman’s superb writing is that the audience goes on this continuous journey of discovery throughout the two hours and a half hours of the play. Once you think the show is going somewhere, it astounds you. Once you think you know which character to cheer for, it upends your perceptions of what are right and wrong actions in its world. So I won’t give any spoilers out –  suffice it to say that Luna Gale is the name of an infant girl in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who is taken away from her teenage, meth-addicted parents by a strong-handed social worker and placed in the temporary care of the baby’s Christian evangelical grandmother while they go through counseling.  And through these exceptionally well-written characters, as well as three other characters- the grandmother’s no-nonsense pastor, the social worker’s  much younger and antagonistic boss, and another one of the social worker’s cases- Gilman explores a myriad of intriguing questions: from the personal (what is good parenting? What is the true nature of social work?) to the socio-political (does the bureaucracy and infrastructure of social services in the US really help the needy or disenfranchise them? Do we have as a society deep-seated biases against organized religion that unconsciously play into our social choices?). But this isn’t the Gilman I’ve been previously ambivalent about, there’s no intellectualizing or proselytizing here, but rather scenes full of crackle and emotion. These are characters that second-guess and delude themselves, who argue and harangue and try to one-up each other, flawed people who at times operate in moral grey areas…uhmm, just like people in real life.

None of these characters is more flawed and more compelling than the social worker, Caroline, played in an unsurpassable performance by the great Mary Beth Fisher. Caroline is tough and skeptical, stressed-out, has no life outside of her job, and plays the system whenever she thinks it will advance her convictions, but she’s also truly invested and uncompromising in these convictions and haunted by a past that creates a deep empathy with the troubled people she works with. She can be brittle and unrelenting as when she treats the baby’s grandmother Cindy (a memorable Jordan Baker) condescendingly because of the latter’s religious beliefs or badgers the teenage parents (an intense Reyna de Coursy, and an impressively nuanced Colin Sphar, who with this performance, leaps to head of class of Chicago’s young actors); but she can also be heroic and passionate as she defends the social work she has done over the years, and the choices she  made, with her bureaucrat of a boss Cliff (a convincing Erik Hellmann). Fisher makes this difficult, riveting woman unforgettable.  The entire cast is actually at the level of Fisher’s game, and it’s one of the best ensembles I’ve seen at the Goodman in a while.  But Baker is truly a standout as the grandmother Cindy. She reminds me somewhat of Melissa Leo, with Leo’s nervous energy, earthiness, and vulnerability; but she also stunningly imbues Cindy with all kinds of complicated motivations that make her both sympathetic and infuriating.

Artistic Director Robert Falls’ direction is masterful and unshowy and generously lets Gilman’s writing dazzle.  Todd Rosenthal’s meticulous, train-stopping set design from an uncomfortably realistic-looking hospital to Cindy’s generic Middle America house to Caroline’s messy, ravaged office is impressive but doesn’t draw attention to itself. If I have a nitpick about the design, I’m probably not as enamored with the revolving set, and I know the Goodman can stage multiple sets in a creative manner (see Chinglish’s fluid Chinese-box of a set).  But this is top-notch theater. And after a slow start in the fall, Chicago’s winter theater season is smoldering thanks to productions like Luna Gale. Run and get your tickets now!

Luna Gale is at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., until February 23.


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