Gilman’s “A True History of the Johnstown Flood” at the Goodman

Rebecca Gilman never thought about being a playwright until as a freshman at Middlebury College in Vermont she entered a playwriting competition.

“It was sponsored by the Dramatists Guild of America and was chosen for their new plays festival,” said Gilman. “I think that was when I got hooked.”

Now, after a remarkable career she teaches play and screen writing at Northwestern University and is marking her sixth collaboration with the Goodman Theatre in a decade. Her play,  “A True History of the Johnstown Flood,” runs at the Goodman through April 18.

It is set against the backdrop of an actual event in 1889 in Pennsylvania when a broken dam left 2,200 persons dead. Disaster relief efforts fell to the newly established American Red Cross, led by its founder Clara Barton, who was known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” for her work as a nurse during the Civil War.

The effects of the flood were far more devastating than Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but Gilman found parallels between them. Her play explores whether it was a natural disaster or man-made greed that caused the fatal flood, and if the latter, who was responsible.

“Despite the title, my play is a work of fiction,” Gilman said. “I wanted to view the events through the eyes of artists.” So she created a group of players called the Baxter Family Theater Troupe.  “They are three children of theatrical parents, two brothers and a sister, trying to continue their parents success,” she explained, “but they don’t have a very easy time of it.”

Gilman came to the notice of Goodman in 1998 when one of her earliest plays,  “The Glory of Living,” was presented by the Circle Theater in Forest Park, Illinois. It won a Jeff Citation and was subsequently presented in London and finally in New York City, where it became a finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize.

That success led to a commission from Goodman and Gilman’s  creation of  “Spinning Into Butter,” a play about race relations on a northern college campus that became a 2007 movie, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Miranda Richardson, and Beau Bridges.

Gilman grew up in Alabama. “The heart of Dixie,” she said. Her college years, however, were spent north of the Mason-Dixon line. After attending Middlebury, she graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in 1987 and earned two master’s degrees from the University of Virginia and the University of Iowa.

What was the subject of that first play she wrote in college, which set her career on its award-winning trajectory? “It was called ‘Always Open,'” she said, laughing. “It was set in a Denny’s restaurant where a bunch of employees of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts next door meet and talk about killing their manager.

“Then one of them really does it. The play goes on to explore the culpability of the others who plotted with him.”

Gilman settled in Chicago in 1994 after graduating from the writers’ program in Iowa and eventually joined the Northwestern faculty.

“From Iowa, we all gravitated toward Chicago,” she said, “and now I’m stuck here. It’s a great place for theater.”