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Rebecca Gilman back in her social-issue lane with empathetic ‘Twilight Bowl’

Anne Thompson (Sharlene), Heather Chrisler (Jaycee), Hayley Burgess (Clarice) and Becca Savoy (Sam) in the world premiere of Twilight Bowl by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Erica Weiss (February 8 – March 10, 2019). GoodmanTheatre.org/twilightbowl Read more

Anne Thompson (from left, as Sharlene), Heather Chrisler (Jaycee), Hayley Burgess (Clarice) and Becca Savoy (Sam) in the world premiere of "Twilight Bowl" at the Goodman Theatre. | Liz Lauren

Chicago playwright Rebecca Gilman’s latest work, her ninth to be produced by the Goodman Theatre across the last 20 years, opens at a going-away party attended by four young women. But the mood is hardly celebratory.

Jaycee (Heather Chrisler), the 22-year-old guest of honor, alternates between sulking and lashing out at the three other guests: Sam (Becca Savoy), Jaycee’s younger cousin, who’s spending the summer after graduating from high school working at the bowling alley where the party and the play are set; Clarice (Hayley Burgess), a high school classmate of Jaycee who also works at the Twilight Bowl; and Sharlene (Anne E. Thompson), a God-fearing, teetotaling Christian girl who’s known the others since they went to church together as kids. The size of the untouched cake with Jaycee’s name on it suggests they were hoping for higher attendance.

‘Twilight Bowl’
★★★
When: Through March 10
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Tickets: $10–$45
Info: goodmantheatre.org
Run time: 1 hours 30 minutes, no intermission

When Jaycee opens her gifts, we find out just where she’s headed. From Clarice, a sex toy; from Sam, a basket of toiletries; from Sharlene, a long-distance calling card. Sharlene’s is the only practical present, as Jaycee won’t be able to bring the other two with her when she reports to prison the next morning.

“Twilight Bowl” is set in the small town of Reynolds, Wisconsin. Though it’s fictional, Reynolds is located in the nonfictional Green County, a sparsely populated area south of Madison, on the border with Illinois.

Reynolds also was the setting for Gilman’s “Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976,” which premiered at the Goodman in 2016. In that play, where the action took place in the year of its title, Reynolds was facing a threat to its largest employer, the Farmstead cheese factory, which had been bought by an efficiency-minded Chicago conglomerate.

“Twilight Bowl” then could be seen as a snapshot of what a one-factory town looks like four decades after the factory closes. Sadly, Reynolds looks like a lot of rural America does these days. The attainable and sustainable middle-class life of “Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976” has been pummeled out of existence by a dearth of good jobs (especially for people without college degrees), a general eroding of resources and, lately, the opioid crisis.

Jaycee is going to prison for prescription fraud — obtaining drugs, she says,m for her dad, who couldn’t work, whose disability check didn’t cover his rent and who couldn’t get any more pain meds for himself. She had no idea, she swears, he was turning around and selling Fentanyl to ninth-graders outside the high school. Her mother, a raging alcoholic, didn’t set a great example, either. “I never understood how she could live with her mom until I saw her dad’s place,” Sam later says.

Sam is going away, too. She’s set to attend Ohio State University on a bowling scholarship. But when we see her in the next scene, home for Thanksgiving break, she’s on edge, afraid she’s going to be cut from the team and struggling in her classes.

Being a high school bowling champ isn’t that special when everyone else on the team is, too, it turns out. And it’s harder to stand out when the campus population is several times that of your hometown.

“College made me wonder if our high school was very good,” says Brielle (a terrifically deadpan Mary Taylor), another Twilight Bowl employee, who dropped out of UW-Platteville to come back home.

Angela Morris portrays Maddy in "Twilight Bowl," written by Rebecca Gilman and directed by Erica Weiss at the Goodman Theatre. | Liz Lauren

Angela Morris portrays Maddy in “Twilight Bowl,” written by Rebecca Gilman and directed by Erica Weiss at the Goodman Theatre. | Liz Lauren

The sixth character is a new college friend who comes home with Sam for Thanksgiving. Maddy, deliciously played by Angela Morris, is a Winnetka native who expects people to be impressed when she mentions she graduated from New Trier. She represents both class bias and the fact that those with privilege do plenty of self-medicating, too.

Like “Soups,” “Twilight Bowl” is a closely observed and authentic-feeling slice of life. Director Erica Weiss’ staging is laced with deep veins of empathy and humor, and the six actors imbue their performances with layers of nuance. Having grown up in and around small towns myself, I felt like I recognized these people and their behaviors. And with so many stories about the problems facing these kinds of communities centered on men, it’s refreshing to see the lives of young women centered (and handsomely created by an all-female production team, to boot).

Yet this play also shares a less admirable trait with “Soups” and with others of Gilman’s social issue works: The issues have received more attention than the story. The characters represent varied points of view, and the playwright doesn’t sit in judgment or put her thumb on the scales for any of them, which is good. But it means the stakes don’t feel all that high, even for Jaycee on the eve of going to prison. And the interpersonal relationships don’t always ring true. In bowling terms, it’s a split leave where the approach could use some work.

Kris Vire is a freelance writer.