Playwright Rebecca Gilman has earned a reputation as a dramatist with an unflinching eye on capital-I issues: relationship stalking (Boy Gets Girl), political correctness and race in academia (Spinning Into Butter), rape and serial murder (The Glory of Living). In her latest, Luna Gale (playing at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre through Feb. 23), Gilman juggles topics such as child protection services, Christian fundamentalism, and methamphetamine abuse that might sink other writers who tackled only one. However aggressively she steps on the pedal, Gilman remains a force to be reckoned with.
The Luna of the title is a newborn baby, born to teenage methheads Karlie (Reyna de Courcy) and Peter (Colin Sphar) who find themselves at the mercy of social worker Caroline (the superb Mary Beth Fisher), a droll, divorced fiftysomething who favors gut instinct over bureaucracy. Karlie’s put-upon, devoutly Christian mother Cindy (a solid Jordan Baker, in the play’s most difficult supporting role) wishes to take custody of Luna, and discusses her options with the decidedly nonreligious Caroline (who laughs at the mention of the phrase ”personal savior,” adding that she typically mis-hears it as ”personal trainer,” a comment that will later prove more loaded than she thought). Caroline feels for the young couple, and has doubts about custody going to a woman pre-occupied with End Days (who even recruits her pastor to give weight to her custody case). She also sees Karlie as the latest in her series of young women (one recently proved a success) that she can possibly save, even if it means skirting the rules a tad.
As in Gilman’s other works, the terrain is thoroughly researched; even the writerly-sounding acronym for support group MOM — Mothers Off Meth — actually exists in some form. But one of the more pleasant surprises is how funny Luna Gale is, sometimes even in the headiest of exchanges involving Caroline’s rigid supervisor, Cliff (played amusingly, if a tad too smarmily, by Erik Hellman).
Gilman sometimes sets up a few too many bowling pins to be knocked over (Act II has more revelations than the entirety of the Bible), but she never takes the easy way out dramaturgically. Director Robert Falls’ top-notch production keeps the audience constantly alert and a little on edge, like a particularly potent episode of Law & Order. (This is not a criticism — we all love L&O for a reason.) Credit also goes to scenic designer Todd Rosenthal, who absolutely nails the play’s antiseptic, cream-colored milieu.
The real standout here is a Fisher, who’s been a handful of other Gilman plays and deserves a shot of reprising her tough, beautifully nuance work in the inevitable New York City production of Luna Gale. B+