Chicago-based playwright Rebecca Gilman has won a Joseph Jefferson Award, the Roger L. Stevens Award from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, the Osborn Award of the American Theatre Critics Association, the George Devine Award, and London's Evening Standard Award as Most Promising Playwright, the first American recipient to be so awarded.
Her four full-length plays all have premiered in Chicago and one, The Glory of Living, has gone on to productions in London and Vienna. A one-act play was included in last year's Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Gilman's Spinning Into Butter premiered in the Goodman Studio Theatre last season, and will be the vehicle for her New York debut this summer. She's a commissioned playwright, both at the Goodman and at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, which dovetailed nicely with Gilman's southern roots.
It may thus be an understatement to say Gilman is a rising star among young American playwrights. But, indeed, she is the genuine article: a new American voice with the power of ideas and the ability to entertain, as she amply demonstrates with her literate, taut, compelling, and unexpectedly funny new work, Boy Gets Girl. The play is unexpectedly funny because stalking--the play's subject--isn't a laughing matter, yet Gilman's superb use of comedy, mostly in Act I, develops interest in her well-observed characters, creates irony, and builds tension.
The world premiere of Boy Gets Girl on the Goodman Theatre mainstage benefits from experienced and confident direction by Michael Maggio, who once again shows his skill with new work. The play also boasts a glorious turntable set by Michael Phillippi (he'll get a Jeff nomination for sure), and a cast both solid and true who breathe deep life even into the play's secondary roles.
The story is driven forward when Theresa (Mary Beth Fisher), a journalist, falls victim to the increasingly violent stalking obsession of a good-looking and pleasant man she meets on a blind date. Shallow but seemingly sincere, he is too solicitous by half. But the play isn't about him or his actions (indeed, he doesn't appear in Act II, although his presence is felt); rather, the play is about the reaction to the stalking by the heroine and her co-workers. As a result, the real meat of Boy Gets Girl concerns image and self-definition, along with the roles and decisions we are forced to make and take by circumstances, rather than by choice. The central question: Is stalking abnormal, or is it merely an extension of the way men are acculturated to view and pursue women, and women to display themselves?
Gilman spins all these themes with clarity, largely by giving Theresa several foils to bounce off of, notably a female police officer, and a breast-obsessed, sexploitation film director (inspired by Russ Meyer) who just may be Theresa's best friend. Theresa herself is anything but warm and fuzzy. Instead, Gilman's central figure is a ball-buster; a slightly anti-social, thirtysomething careerist who sympathizes with few and trusts fewer still--not even the other women in the play. (Theresa disdains and fires her Generation Next secretary.) It's this complexity of character that sets Gilman above most other writers.
With drawn mouth and suspicious eyes, Fisher creates a guarded, slightly world-weary Theresa who is shocked out of her socks by her ordeal yet finds it nearly impossible to take the hands extended to assist her. Interestingly, Gilman parses out little expository information about Theresa--she is a closed character in more ways than one--yet Fisher makes her a perfectly believable, always-on-her-guard, modern, urban woman.
In support, Matt DeCaro's understated work as Theresa's concerned boss reveals an innate sweetness shining through an outer crust; Howard Witt as the aging film director is a wonder of wry delivery and self-mockery. Ian Lithgow as the stalker, David Adkins as a fellow journalist, Ora Jones as a police officer, and Shayna Ferm as the space cadet secretary complete the excellent and entertaining company.
Boy Gets Girl sags only at the beginning of Act II, when two extended scenes stop the story cold, undercut the building tension, and turn preachy. Clearly Gilman's intellectual platform, one scene features two men and the other two women who, in a manner of speaking, discuss the play's issues. I'll bet the farm that both scenes are shorter now than they were at the start of rehearsals, but both need to be shortened even more. In fact, the guy scene probably could go. If it did, Boy Gets Girl could run as a tight, extended one-act of under two hours.