Gilman's Glory, Everyone Else's Misery

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Rebecca Gilman is an American playwright we should be proud of.

Gilman writes plays about regular people faced with serous issues—and what's more, after receiving a good deal of attention (not to mention a few awards) she hasn't bailed on the theater yet. Her most well known play, Spinning into Butter, has just been turned into a film starring Sarah Jessica Parker; but Gilman's latest works (a new play opening last week and a musical that opens next summer) are not for Hollywood, but for small theaters in Chicago.

These are all things to be applauded…the only problem is: each of Gilman's plays is more boring and contrived than the last.

The valiant revival of Gilman's The Glory of Living currently running at the Big Vic Theatre in Burbank is a stark reminder of this unpleasant aspect of Gilman's otherwise thriving dramatic career.

Six years ago, I went eagerly to New York premiere of The Glory of Living. I hadn't really liked any of Gilman's earlier polemics, but I thought this one might finally make me realize why she was getting so much hype. The reason: two actors Anna Paquin and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Paquin was making her American stage debut and Hoffman was directing only his second off-Broadway show.

Before going to up to Burbank to see this The Glory of Living, I tried to recall that past performance. Sadly, what little I remembered was that the New Zealander, Paquin, who played the main character of Lisa, struggled with her redneck American accent—and that while she looked the right age, the actress couldn't hide a beauty and intelligence that simply wasn't in the character Gilman wrote.

glory2.jpgIn this first local production of The Glory of Living, the role of Lisa is played by Rachel Style. In appearance and  manner, she is much more believable as the clueless, awkward and supine 15-year old who runs off with a violent, older man. Likewise, the "violent, older man," Clint (played by Martin Papazian), is performed with much more force and power than in the New York production. He makes Clint's turn-on-a-dime fits of rage frighteningly real.


Early on in this production, you feel like director Carri Sullens and her cast are going to make a dingy, forgettable play into something fiercely memorable. Alas, Gilman's dishwater dull dialogue quickly forces these good performances into dead-ends that render the acting useless. After a few scenes, the deadpan exchanges lose any Pinter-esque menace. Lisa starts saying things to Clint like "Let me see your gun. I want to see your gun" or "I love you so much it makes me sick." Gilman can't escape the country-western clichés any more than her characters can. She hopes that by surrounding vapid, empty words with silence and jolting scene changes that the words will become poetry, in much the same way that she thinks giving this glum, trailer-park tragedy the title, The Glory of Living, will bestow the work with both irony and importance.

Seeing the play again, I don't fault Gilman's good intentions to want to write a play that examines the mind of woman who is under the spell of a violent—and possibly murderous—husband. It's an interesting subject and Terrance Malick made a haunting, beautiful film about it called Badlands.

Gilman's play clearly aspires to this type of bleak poetry. In this production, are a few brief moments where Ms. Style impressively evokes Sissy Spacek's unforgettable performance in Badlands; but the shrill and repetitive text of The Glory of Living (an inexplicable Pulitzer runner-up in 2002), fails to achieve even the dirty realism of a cheap crime show on basic cable TV.

Rebecca Gilman's The Glory of Living runs through December 22 at the Victory Theatre in Burbank

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Photos: Tim Sullens