Modern rural America is a land often painted in popular culture with quaint farm houses, 4th of July family picnics, hardworking, humble neighbors and miles and miles of corn fields. But beneath the Norman Rockwell-veneer exists a much more complicated and conflicted reality. It’s into this world that Rebecca Gilman places her latest work, Luna Gale. The play opens on an emergency room in Cedar Rapids, Iowa where a meth-addled young couple juggle the needs of their sick child and their own withdrawal symptoms. This is where the couple, Karlie and Peter, meet Caroline, the social worker assigned to their case.
While preparing for Luna Gale, I read this scene and was immediately reminded of a book I heard about while working at the Chicago Humanities Festival several years ago. Methland by Nick Reding won the 2009 Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for non-fiction. Awarded annually at the Humanities Festival, the prize honors recently released books that “embody the spirit of the nation’s heartland.”
In the book, Reding takes us to Oelwein, Iowa, a small town of about 6,772 residents reeling from the social, psychological and economic cost of methamphetamine. Chronicling four years of reporting, Methland is almost a biography of meth and of the small towns across the Midwest devastated by what one Oelwein-based doctor calls “a socio cultural cancer.” It was a book I had wanted to read but let fall by the wayside in the glut of literature and art that I had to promote for the Festival.
But 5 years later as I read the script for Luna Gale, Rebecca Gilman’s characters and words drew me in: Karlie and Peter, the conflicted teenage parents; Caroline, the hardended veteran social worker; and Cindy, the grandmother seeking custody of Luna. I was compelled to better understand their lives and motivations. In a bittersweet coincidence, the setting of the play, Cedar Rapids, is barely an hour’s drive away from Oelwein and I could feel the fictional world of the play tugging at the edges reality in Methland.
So I returned to Methland to read it and better understand the human drama at the heart of Luna Gale. Unsurprisingly, I was not the only Goodman employee to see this connection. The playwright Rebecca Gilman, the director Robert Falls, cast members and the dramaturgy team all read Methland to inform their own work on the production.
As a way to further explore the themes and stories of Luna Gale, we recommend adding Methland to your reading list.