DOWNTOWN — Mary Beth Fisher knows everything there is to know about Caroline: the hospital where she works, where she gardens, even where her grandparents live.
Caroline is a seasoned social worker who is a lead character in the Goodman Theatre’s production of "Luna Gale" — which runs through Sunday. Fisher, a longtime Chicago actress who has starred in multiple shows at the Goodman, plays Caroline as she decides the fate of 6-month-old Luna Gale, whose young parents are struggling to kick a meth addiction. Luna's parents later engage in an emotional custody battle with Luna's born-again grandmother.
The story strives to be as realistic as possible, showing what case workers for agencies like the Department of Children and Family Services grapple with every day. To reach that level of accuracy in the production, the actors in the show began the process of “world building” and developing their characters long before they took the stage for opening night last month.
“We can’t do a play without knowing the world we’re inhabiting,” said Neena Arndt, the dramaturge who was responsible for compiling research and assisting the play’s director, Robert Falls, through the rehearsal process. “We take that research very seriously.”
Part of that research is factual — identifying the real-life locations of everything in the play. For "Luna Gale," actors studied maps of Cedar Rapids, Iowa (where the play is set) and nailed down the important locations in the life of every character.
“The actors who play [Luna Gale's parents] Peter [and] Karlie and Lourdes, they all know what high school their character went to. Real high schools that actually exist,” said Arndt. In the play, Lourdes is an 18-year-old recent "graduate" of the child welfare system who Caroline had worked with for years.
Fisher plotted out where Caroline’s grandparents' farm was, where her character likes to garden and bird watch and all the places she frequents during her work day — her office, Mercy Hospital, the court house and the apartments and homes of the people who she’s working with.
“We all knew where everything was and how long it would take to drive there or take the bus there,” Fisher said.
Fisher said beyond having an understanding of place, the actors dissected the play’s script, beginning with the first scene where the audience is introduced to Luna Gale’s parents, who are high on meth, waiting in the emergency room after their daughter got sick.
“Page one: Peter has Band-Aids on his fingers. We would write down questions. Why does Peter have Band-Aids on his fingers? Karlie has a lot of candy in her bag. Why does Karlie have so much candy in her bag?” Fisher said. “You start to learn things about what meth does to you.”
The actors learned that many meth addicts hallucinate that they have bugs crawling under their skin causing them to obsessively pick their skin, leaving open sores. Meth can also cause extremely dry mouths in users, which causes many to crave sugary drinks and candy.
In addition to mastering the facts written into the script, Fisher said the actors spent time fleshing out the lives of their characters into biographies, which she said was the more imaginative part of “world building.”
“The audience will never know the details of that, but what they will get is point of view about it,” Fisher said. “It’s not just vaguely talking about, ‘Oh my mother or sister or whatever.’ There’s attitude about it because there’s a history about it.”
Arndt said the idea behind “world building” is that actors are creating back-stories that are helpful and fuel their performances.
Also part of the behind-the-scenes work, the actors spent part of a rehearsal day working with a real social worker.
“It was such a rare platform for me to really talk about my feelings about the job and the cases that touched my heart and the cases that still haunted me,” said Tracie Pape, who spent more than 10 years as a social worker for Catholic Charities and the Center for Contextual Change in the West Loop before opening her own practice in Evanston.
Pape read the Luna Gale script before meeting with the actors and said she felt it reflected the internal dilemma case workers often experience on the job.
“For me, not knowing what the [fate] of the child would be felt real,” Pape said.
Fisher said so much of the play is about making judgment calls, and listening to Pape talk about her experiences in the field helped her understand the sixth sense and gut instinct social workers develop throughout their careers.
“It was very clear how she was a very grounded and centered person. I took note of that when I was developing Caroline, that centered-ness and clarity,” Fisher said.
“The audience would never know the amount of work we did to create the reality of the play.”