DePaul Theatre School alum Colin Sphar in Goodman Theatre’s ‘Luna Gale’

To some, “bureaucracy” is a dirty word. It conjures up images of stacks of meaningless forms, wasteful spending and undue government oversight. It is easy to forget that the services the federal government provides go beyond the Post Office and the DMV, and the stereotypically negative connotations associated with these services only add to the unfamiliarity.

The Department of Human Services, or DHS, is one office that, for many Americans, remains out of sight and out of mind. This is probably for the best, as it provides an essential and grueling resource – the protection of children born into disadvantaged families.

“Luna Gale,” the latest play by Pulitzer-nominated playwright Rebecca Gilman, tells a story that is all too often ignored. Within its two acts, she paints a complex portrait of life on the fringes of society, and the social workers who toil every day to bring people out from that burden. Like most works of this magnitude, it may raise more questions than provide answers by the conclusion, but its ability to combat our most basic preconceptions makes “Luna Gale” a stunning, riveting piece of theatre.

The setting in which this all plays out is an unassuming one – Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a small city built on the agricultural industry. It lies in the middle of America’s breadbasket, as well as the far less wholesome-sounding epicenter of one of the largest drug markets in the country. Methamphetamine has long been known as the scourge of the Midwest, and its affinity for the area can be explained in its effect on users. In a part of America where honest hard work is culturally imperative, the powerful stimulant makes this ideal attainable for some.

The story follows the struggle of Karlie and Peter, who have recently begun a life not only as parents, but also as meth addicts. The custody of their child, the titular yet unseen character of the play, is challenged by veteran social worker Caroline Cox, but she is not inherently the enemy. She relieves the couple of Luna’s custody temporarily, so that they can get their lives together. Luna is then given to Karlie’s mother, Cindy, who Caroline discovers may be more of the problem than the solution. What follows is a protracted battle between what’s best and what’s right, and whether or not the past can predict the future.

I had the privilege to speak with Colin Sphar, who plays Peter, after seeing the show. He graduated from The Theatre School at DePaul in 2011 and has already been busy racking up credits at both storefront and bigname companies around Chicago. He was able to provide some insight into the unique way in which “Luna Gale” came together under the direction of Goodman Theatre’s artistic director Robert Falls.

“The way we worked on it was pretty interesting,” Sphar said. “We started rehearsals in early December by just sitting around a table and asking what facts were presented in the play, and what questions had to be answered by research.” Sphar noted that doing analytical bookwork prior to the play is actually one of his favorite ways to prepare for a role. Indeed, “Luna Gale” is grounded in history, with Gilman’s main inspiration coming from a PBS “Frontline” documentary about the turbulent past of the DHS and American social workers. In keeping with this central idea, Sphar read up on details as minute as the geography of Cedar Rapids, and poured over books on the subject of middle America’s meth problem.

After about two weeks of research into their roles, Falls began rehearsals in a somewhat unconventional way.

“We started with the [first] scene in the break room, just reading off our scripts and moving as we thought our characters would move,” he said. “Then he would take our scripts away, before we had anything memorized or blocked, and go through the scene that way… it kept everyone on their toes and made us ask, ‘What’s going on? Where do we fit in the context of the scene?'”

Sphar credits his time at The Theatre School with his ability to delve deep into a character’s world, while still learning more conventional methods of preparing and performing.

“I really value my education at The Theatre School,” he said. “I learned the basics of technique, how to practice, and about the rehearsal process that follows the actor’s union rules.”

This attention to detail and passion for authenticity is evident throughout “Luna Gale,” and it adds up to an emotional roller coaster of a play. Handling this visceral energy is one of the things that attracts Sphar to acting, but can also be the hardest part of the job to grapple with.

“If I can find a good way to slide into the world of a play and then slide out of it, I feel like I can go back to being Colin,” he said, discussing how to handle a deeply emotional role, night after night. “You get lost in the world that you’re playing in, and that’s what attracts a lot of people.”

“Luna Gale” runs through Feb. 23 at the Goodman Theatre.