Rebecca Gilman is remarkable because she gained almost instantaneous popularity in what is essentially the middle of her career. The same reasons that many theaters gave for rejecting her work earlier in her career—that her writing was too harsh or risky and that it risked offending or alienating the audience—are largely what have made her so popular. Gilman’s risk taking has paid off and has allowed her to explore some of the more difficult issues of modern society on the theater stage. Audiences have come to expect that her writing will shock or repel them, and she has made a point of making her characters both thoughtful and brutal as well as both violent and sympathetic. Perhaps her strongest asset is her attention to realism in language, as well as her ability to develop her characters honestly in exploration of a particular issue. Her plays advocate this kind of attention to the real individual.
Gilman, in her treatment of issues as diverse as racism and the objectification of women, always keeps at the forefront her premise that individual crimes cannot be considered apart from the forces of society. Her work indicts the human tendency to make the individual into an object—something that is done whether an individual is being vilified or glorified. In the world of Gilman’s characters, a young girl is capable of assisting in the serial murder of other young girls solely because she was not taught to value herself. Similarly, a seemingly ordinary blind date becomes obsessive and violent as a result of societal forces that put a price tag on the female form. Her ability to make these connections between society and the individual has enabled her to put a human face on seemingly insurmountable issues such as racism.
Gilman’s villains often do not appear onstage but take shape in the audience’s mind through their reported interactions with the other characters. In Spinning into Butter, the central character of Simon Brick—an African American student who essentially persecutes himself—is never seen onstage, but an image of his character is formed through the dialogue of those who deal with him. In Boy Gets Girl, the obsessive stalker is seen only in a brief and awkward opening scene before disappearing into the elusive oblivion of Theresa’s retelling. This method of bringing the audience into her storytelling has allowed Gilman to bring a play about racism to audiences reluctant to talk about it and to create a widely popular feminist-leaning play about stalking.
The Glory of Living
The Glory of Living is considered to be Gilman’s professional breakthrough because it was her first work to gain recognition from the Chicago theater scene and is the work that earned her the Goodman Theatre’s Scott McPherson Award. It never became as widely performed as her later plays, probably because of its graphic subject matter. The Glory of Living is based on a true-crime story that took place in Gilman’s native Alabama. It features a neglected trailer-park teenager, who is abused and manipulated by an older husband. The two go on a murderous spree in which the wife, Lisa, lures young girls to motels for her husband’s pleasure before killing them at his behest.
Gilman does not pull punches with the sexuality or violence of this setup, and its bitter slice-of-life quality characterizes her style. The style has been praised by some critics for being unflinching and dismissed by others for being needlessly brutal. The Glory of Living uses Lisa’s childlike willingness to kill as a springboard to...
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