By Patrick Hurley
Rebecca Gilman’s new play Luna Gale, playing now through December 21 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, gets its title from a character we never see. Luna is a baby. The story is about her, but more accurately it’s about the overcrowded, and nearly broken system we have in America when it comes to dealing with Children’s rights and foster care
The story centers on Caroline (Mary Beth Fisher), a social worker who is overburdened by her case load, a contentious supervisor, and a former boss whose sudden departure left a stain on the entire department. Caroline is the social worker assigned to Luna’s case. She is also dealing with an eighteen year-old former foster child, Lourdes (Melissa DuPrey) who is going out into the world unprepared. Lourdes is a personification of a broken system.
When we first meet them in a hospital waiting room where they have brought their sick daughter, Luna’s parents, Karlie (Reyna de Courcy) and Peter (Colin Sphar) are both high on Meth, and don’t really know how long she has been sick. Caroline, who happens to be the social worker at the hospital that night, informs them that she is removing the child from their care.
Enter Karlie’s mother, Luna’s Grandmother, Cindy (Jordan Baker), a nurse who seems to be a perfectly suitable guardian for Luna. Not long after Luna is placed in Cindy’s care does Caroline discover some unsettling truths about her. Cindy is an Evangelical Christian, and under the guidance of her Pastor (Richard Thieriot) seems to be preparing for the End Times. This causes unease in Caroline who is now caught up with the dilemma of what will happen to baby Luna.
The battle for Luna Gale commences between two uneducated Meth addicts trying to straighten up for the sake of their child, and two extremist Christians who seem, to Caroline at least, to be slightly out of touch with reality.
Torn between what she believes is best for the child, and keeping up with a job that is slowly overwhelming her, Caroline has to make decisions that test her ethics and her humanity. This could very well be the definition of a twenty first century tragedy. The undoing of a hero exemplified through a protagonist whose own moral imperatives demand immoral actions. Playwright Rebecca Gilman has crafted an honest and evocative look at very real contemporary issues. She also deftly handles distinction of voice. There is a clarity with each character, nothing stilted or awkward, and she keeps the action moving by allowing internal struggle of characters to be revealed easily in their dialogue. It is only a gifted writer that can pull this off.
This production excels in every aspect. Starting with the ridiculously well-constructed sets. Designed by Todd Rosenthal, the rotating stage allows for more sets than seems reasonable, and every one of them were constructed with such attention to detail that the tone of this play is a kind of hyper-verisimilitude. From Caroline’s office, which has a perfect lived-in and chaotic feel with a cluttered desk, and shelves overstuffed with files. To Cindy’s kitchen, which had every detail of a real kitchen. You feel completely transported to each and every setting that appears.
Director Robert Falls does something quite impressive here, he allows the scene breaks, the moments where the set rotates, to increase the tension. He uses music (original and designed by Richard Woodsbury) and characters who occasionally step off the rotating stage to propel one moment into the next. No scene lasts for very long, there are quite a few transitions, but they became a part of the show, rather than a break from it. Mr. Falls also handles the material beautifully. The stakes for this play are enormous, and yet he never lets it go off the rails. It is wonderfully composed. There are just as many gentle moments as there are heightened ones, and it never devolves into melodrama, nor does it underplay anything to dullness. It’s a balancing act that really pays off.
The payoff also comes from a first rate cast. There is not a single weak link in this production. Reyna de Courcy embodies Karlie’s desperation masterfully. Her last moment on stage is wonderfully uncomfortable to watch. Colin Sphar, as Peter, likewise creates a multi-dimensional character. He is not a cliché, neither of these two actors ever resort to an easy choice. They are real people. We care about them, we understand their limitations. Jordan Baker, as Cindy, is impressive. She imbues Cindy with equal parts sweetness and oddness. There is something off about her, and Ms. Baker owns the contradiction so well that we believe her at every turn.
Mary Beth Fisher is astonishing as Caroline. She has created a character that is fueled by the need to do the right thing, and she carries the weight of the consequences of failure with her into every scene. It is quite remarkable how real her Caroline is. There are moments where you can’t see an actress performing, you only see Caroline. She is present in nearly every scene of the play, and she never falters. Her mannerisms, the way she talks, the way she walks, the way she laughs, every interaction she has serves as the physical manifestation of her internal struggle.
The entire production rises to a level of greatness that is as refreshing as it is exhilarating. And what we will walk away with is not a small thing. Whether the story itself speaks to you, or if you can just appreciate the art of truly great theater, the honesty of this work will affect you. This is a great example of artists who are working at the top of their craft, and it truly a sight to see.
**Photos by Craig Schwartz
By Rebecca Gilman
Directed by Robert Falls
December 2-December 21
Saturday 2 & 8PM
Sunday 1 & 630PM
Kirk Douglas Theatre
9820 Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232