Rebecca Gilman, an artistic associate at Goodman Theatre and writer of its newest world premiere play Luna Gale, says one of her hopes for her playwriting career is that everything she writes will pass the Bechdel test. Named after woman cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the Bechdel test for film and stage decrees that two women characters within a work—with names—have a conversation about something other than a man. Sounds simple, right? But when you really think about it, the number of passes is smaller than you might expect.
Luna Gale, directed by Robert Falls, is most definitely a pass. It features an exquisite ensemble cast and several very strong roles for women, most notably the character of Caroline, played by the remarkable Mary Beth Fisher in her third collaboration with Gilman. Caroline is a divorced social worker assigned to the case of an infant by the name of Luna Gale, whose teenage parents Peter (Colin Sphar) and Karlie (Reyna de Courcy) suffer from meth addiction. While also confronting personal issues buried in her past and arising in her male-dominated workplace, Caroline is forced to decide who should be responsible for Luna: her parents, or Karlie’s deeply religious mother Cindy (Jordan Baker), who perhaps isn’t all there herself. The scenes between Cindy and Caroline are just a few of many instances proving that Luna Gale passes the Bechdel test: their conversations bring into conflict motherhood and the complex issues of religion and ethics in the social welfare system.
Gilman is a very, very, very smart writer. Her unique drama provides a commentary on the American social welfare system (which, I realized when I saw the play, I knew next to nothing about, inspiring me to learn more), and portrays the harsh reality of meth addiction as well as the role that socioeconomic status plays in it. Class—both gender and socioeconomic—is a recurring theme in the play, and one Gilman says appears throughout her work. Her dialogue is equally intelligent; it bites with a sharp ferocity and always sounds wholly contemporary.
Some might argue that Gilman’s writing is too calculated. It’s true that sometimes her plot points seem obvious and feel like they exist solely to take us from Point A to Point B, but in Luna Gale it works. And because so much of the story involves conflict between people’s lives and the ethics and bureaucracy of social welfare, many characters make certain decisions simply because they must, whether they like it or not. In short, their decisions are plot-driven, and this not only makes sense in context but is also fascinating to watch.
Writing aside, the acting is a large part of why the Goodman’s production of Luna Gale succeeds on so many levels. The entire cast delivers very consistent performances throughout, with the minor exception of De Courcy as Karlie, lacking the fluidity of the other actors. Fisher delivers a mind-blowing performance as Caroline, taking her from smooth professional to raw emotion within seconds. Caroline’s whole world revolves around her job, and Fisher believably portrays her struggle between connecting with others on a personal level and maintaining a professional distance. I was also pleasantly surprised by actor Melissa DuPrey as Lourdes, a teenage girl who grew up in foster care but has now aged out of the social welfare system and is about to start college. While at first a seemingly innocent and likeable supporting role, DuPrey masters the twists and complexities of this ultimately tragic character.
The only slightly off-putting thing about Luna Gale is its set design. The play is staged in the Goodman’s Albert Theatre, with a seating capacity for over 800 people. This stage has more mechanical capabilities as opposed to the Goodman’s smaller Owen Theatre, which are put to good use in Luna Gale’s elaborate set changes, but at least for me, sitting in the “cheap seats” at the very back of the auditorium, it seemed at times I was isolated from the action and occasionally missing things. The play relies on intimate interactions between the characters, and despite the complicated sets, it is really a small, contained play, one that would work better in a more intimate space.
While Luna Gale might be best-appreciated from the front row, I’m certainly not complaining. When it comes to this play, the goods definitely outweigh the bads. Robert Falls’ direction and extraordinary cast combined with Rebecca Gilman’s insightful script creates an extremely powerful pairing. Of course, the beauty of live theatre is a fleeting one. Even if you miss the chance to see the Goodman’s production, I doubt that this will be the last of Luna Gale. This is an important play, with a lot to say about modern society—especially the role of women—and one we can expect to stick around for a long time.