'Luna Gale': Theater Review

Craig Schwartz
Rebecca Gilman's brilliant new play is not to be missed

An outstanding new social drama about parenting that stands as a rich contribution to the American theater canon

Rebecca Gilman was thinking of writing a play about a social worker but didn’t know what it would be until she suffered a minor injury and paid a visit to the emergency room. In the waiting room sat a drug-addicted young woman with her boyfriend passed out beside her. The woman got a phone call from a caregiver who was looking after her baby, and Gilman noted clear-headed concern in her voice as she articulated sensible instructions on childcare. She wondered if, despite her drug issues, the woman might be a good mother after all.

In the writer’s mind, this episode transformed the originally planned social worker play into Luna Gale, a human drama about how we fail our children. Following its world premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last winter, the play visits the Douglas in Culver City through Dec. 21.

It opens in a waiting room where waifish Karlie (Reyna de Courcy) flits about like a fly in a glass while her partner, Peter (Colin Sphar), seems comatose next to her. To revive him she force-feeds him Skittles, leaving a mess of litter and snack food around them. This nervous little hell is disrupted by Caroline (Mary Beth Fisher), a social worker who pegs them for the drug addicts they are and launches into some cold hard facts about the future of their baby, Luna Gale, if they don’t get into rehab.

At first, Caroline seems like just another hardened bureaucrat, too overwhelmed to care as she coolly meets with Karlie’s mom, Cindy (Jordan Baker), who flutters about her kitchen, hoping to qualify as baby Luna’s guardian. By the end of the scene Cindy reveals herself to be an evangelical Christian, which Caroline clearly is not. Although it seems incidental, it becomes essential to what follows.

Once Caroline learns that Cindy is a religious zealot who puts the kingdom of heaven ahead of earthly concerns, she tries to reverse the transition of guardianship, resorting to a lie that comes right before the play’s intermission. Some critics have judged this a contrivance geared toward creating suspense rather than staying true to character, but exposition in the second act illuminates and justifies the lie, albeit retroactively.

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A subplot involves foster-care graduate Lourdes (Melissa DuPrey), intended to represent the ideal version of the other side of the system that baby Luna seems destined to become a part of. But this is an unnecessary element, and though it comments thematically on the main action, its outcome is both predictable and melodramatic.

Caroline’s supervisor, Cliff, is a careerist with a hidden agenda who takes Cindy’s side in the tug of war over the child. The character is slightly one-dimensional, but Erik Hellman does his best to breathe life into the dogmatic, self-absorbed zealot. There’s no doubt who the bad guys are in Luna Gale, a play that had liberals from L.A.’s west side hooting when Caroline turns the tables on her right-wing Christian antagonists. Partisanship seems to be part of the point. Just as a broken bureaucracy makes fast decisions based on superficial findings when assessing Karlie and Peter’s parenting skills, Caroline jumps to conclusions about the overly devout Cindy and her adviser, Pastor Jay (Richard Thierot).

Long associated with the Goodman, Gilman made a name for herself exploring sensitive issues pertaining to race in her 1999 play, Spinning into Butter, as well as rape and victimhood in Boy Gets Girl from 2000, which is why many see Luna Gale, with its stark social themes, as a return to form for the playwright.

Working with frequent collaborators, the sensational Goodman Theatre stalwarts Fisher and director Robert Falls (for the fourth time), Gilman has written a play that appears seamless, with performances that effortlessly complement one another, always in rhythm and utterly organic. No matter how closely you watch, the process is invisible as you succumb to the inner conflicts, the hopelessness and the gray moral ground Luna Gale inhabits.

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If a sign of a great performance is that audiences cannot picture another actor in the role, then Fisher has delivered in a major way. Still, such greatness can only be built on superior material, and Gilman’s play gives Caroline the full range of human emotions to work with — determination, fear, humor, sorrow, regret, callousness and kindness. She makes an indelible impression, and although her work alone is reason enough to see Luna Gale, she is matched by Baker as Cindy in the show’s other jaw-dropping turn.

When we first encounter her, Cindy comes off as a sweet, simple woman who just wants to salvage something out of the wreckage of her family. Ironically she acts without malice, but because she is motivated by faith above all, she can only do harm since she is driven by forces outside the parameters of real-world logic.

As the young parents on their way to recovery, de Courcy and Sphar are repugnant at first but become empathetic as they grapple with a system that requires them to lie to get their baby back. De Courcy is brilliantly cast, physically ideal to play the wiry and skittish Karlie when she’s amped on meth and the petite and fragile young mother when she’s sober. Sphar comes off as Neanderthal in the opening scene, only to emerge as a thoughtful and loving parent before the final curtain.

“If you want to discover what sort of values a country has, look in its prisons,” goes the aphorism. The same could be said about how a country treats its children. In Luna Gale, despite the best intentions, parents, church and state each fail to provide, and it is a fundamental failure that reflects uncomfortably on who we are.

Cast: Mary Beth Fisher, Jordan Baker, Reyna de Courcy, Melissa DuPrey, Erik Hellman, Colin Sphar, Richard Thierot

Director: Robert Falls

Playwright: Rebecca Gilman

Set designer: Todd Rosenthal

Costume designer: Kaye Voyce

Lighting designer: Robert Wierzel

Music and sound designer: Richard Woodbury

Presented by Center Theatre Group, Goodman Theatre

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