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‘Luna Gale’ at Goodman: Groping for answers when parents are children and milk is meth

Submitted by on Jan 31, 2014 – 10:10 am

Social worker Caroline (Mary Beth Fisher) gets a lecture from her boss (Erik Hellman) in Rebecca Gilman's 'Luna Gale.' (Liz Lauren photo)Review: World premiere of “Luna Gale” by Rebecca Gilman, at Goodman Theatre through Feb. 23. ★★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Caroline is a social worker whose job it is to rescue neglected and abused children and find decent homes for them. She goes about her task seriously – one of her former charges gently rebukes her for being “always on topic.” In Rebecca Gilman’s radiant and disturbing new play “Luna Gale,” Caroline comes to her melancholy topic with a full heart as well as her own imperfect history. 

Case worker Caroline (Mary Beth Fisher) could use the help of her mirror image to serve the many kids in need of rescue in 'Luna Gale.' (Liz Lauren)She’s an authentic heroine, one with feet of clay, and imbued with vulnerable humanity in a performance by Mary Beth Fisher that leaves one wishing only to hit replay and see it again.

“Luna Gale” – the name given to a child by its unmarried, drugged-out teenage parents – portrays social services as understaffed, overwhelmed and run by a mix of the incompetent and the agenda-driven. And yet, despite some lines of dramatically amplified despair from Caroline, the play does not come off as righteous polemic. Quite apart from the insufficiencies of funding and resources in the rescue program (the setting is Cedar Rapids, Iowa), we care about the two kids at the center of the story and this dauntless social worker because their mutual entanglement is compelling, complex and constantly surprising. It is, in short, another piece of smartly crafted theater from this master playwright.

Unwed teen parents Peter (Colin Sphar) and Karlie (Reyna de Courcy) must give up drugs or give up their child in 'Luna Gale.' (Liz Lauren)When teenagers Karlie and Peter bring their sick infant to a hospital for emergency care, signs of neglect  prompt officials to step in and remove the child from her parents pending an investigation. The two teens, both obviously drug abusers, are given some time to clean up their act, and the squalid apartment they share, while Luna Gale is placed in the care of Karlie’s twice-married but now single mother Cindy. When Cindy – a born-again Christian played with single-minded conviction by Jordan Baker — begins to press for more control over the child, the young parents become alarmed. So does case worker Caroline, for reasons that are not what they appear to be.

The teen mom's mom (Jordan Baker, left) and her pastor (Richard Thieriot) seek an understanding with case worker Caroline in 'Luna Gale.' (Liz Lauren)Enter Cindy’s pastor and confidant (Richard Thieriot as the very picture of enveloping piety), who joins the push to retrieve little Luna Gale from the dark path and bring her to Jesus’ loving arms. Also peppering this stew is Caroline’s new boss at social services, a rather cold fish bent on clearing the backlog of cases by taking the sensible short path whenever possible. Erik Hellman gives the guy the smarmy veneer and palpable insincerity that mark a character you love to hate. But the boss is the boss, and he suspects that Caroline, for all her good intentions, has a philosophical problem with this Christian woman, or rather this “crazy Christian,” in Caroline’s self-implicating phrase.

The child abuse case supervisor (Erik Hellman) takes a pragmatic view of the department's overwhelming work load in 'Luna Gale.' (Liz Lauren)Whatever may be Caroline’s view of Cindy’s religiosity, it is not her first concern, and the play heats up as the social worker zooms in on something about this case that has gone unspoken, unsuspected. As “Luna Gale” now whirls forward, however, all motion comes to a stop when the pastor and Caroline’s boss confront her evident bias against the Christian faith of Karlie’s mother. The scene that ensues is one of those house-quieting moments when you can almost hear the audience blink. Let’s just say the quiet is followed by a storm when Caroline, having just been put on the spiritual witness stand, gets her shot as prosecutor. Now the house rocks.

The poignancy and appeal of “Luna Gale” depend in large part on the credibility of the two meth-smoking, very young but also very sweet kids-as-parents. Reyna de Courcy is bewitching as the fitful, rail-thin, foul-mouthed and yet essentially reticent Karlie; and it’s a pleasure to watch Colin Sphar’s progression, as Peter, from comatose slacker to boyish father and man in the making. (In a subplot that raises the social worker’s emotional stake, Melissa DuPrey offers a sharp take on a conflicted young woman newly mustered out of the care program.)

With Karlie's mom (Jordan Baker) framed in the mirror, Peter (Colin Sphar) has a moment with his infant daughter. (Liz Lauren)But the indispensable glue is Caroline, to whom Mary Beth Fisher brings penetrating sensitivity, frankness, humor and, not least, risk. It is a performance at once so precise and so spontaneous – almost casual — that you forget you’re watching an actor.

In fairness, that same spontaneity applies across this superb ensemble, which Robert Falls directs with unerring narrative fluidity and dramatic punctuation. The punch-points drill your solar plexus. Credit set designer Todd Rosenthal as well for an ambitious, multi-room layout mounted on a turntable that seamlessly conveys the storyline from scene to scene.

“Luna Gale” is a redemptive tragedy, both social nightmare and coming-of-age story. Goodman’s production belongs on your short list of shows not to be missed.

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