Luna Gale, the engrossing play at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles through Dec. 21, looks at the flawed system for protecting children. The production and original cast are transplanted from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where Rebecca Gilman’s powerful play premiered earlier this year.
The well-acted drama on the serious topic of child protective services (CPS) and what constitutes a good caregiver is presented with humor. Gilman’s work looks at whether family offers a better environment than the foster care system and particularly the idea of “kinship care” with the goal of reunification. The complexity of characters and plot in Luna Gale unfold like an onion that has the audience constantly trying to decide which side they are on.
The main plot is about the custody of a baby named Luna Gale, and keeping her out of the foster care system. That is juxtaposed with a minor plot about a teen “graduating” from the system trying to build a life.
Luna Gale was born to meth-addicted teen parents. She is facing a future in child protective services if placement with family and then reunification with her parents is not possible. Case worker Caroline (Mary Beth Fisher) places the infant with her maternal grandmother, Cindy (Jordan Baker), a religious fanatic at odds with her daughter. Ultimately, when Cindy seeks permanent custody, Caroline is supposed to determine Luna’s fate. Of course, the simple solution to place the baby with Cindy is not as simple as it first seems.
Fisher is thoroughly believable as the easy-going Caroline, who is frustrated, beaten down and sarcastic about her job. But, she cares deeply about the children she’s charged with protecting. Caroline has total disdain for her oppressive boss, Cliff (Erik Hellman). She compassionately does not want to stop playing caseworker to Lourdes, even though she is not longer in foster care, and wants to see Luna’s parents, Karlie and Peter (Reyna de Courcy and Colin Sphar), get clean and their child back.
Baker’s Cindy transforms from easygoing grandmother willing to take custody of Luna Gale to a religious zealot to an angry and fragile women who has to face reality. The actress lives with guilt about her relationship with her daughter and blinders on as to what caused their rift.
The performance of Colin Sphar as the baby’s father is also notable. His character unfolds with the plot from a drugged lug to teen getting it together to a responsible parent wanting the best for his child. The actor is likeable and sincere in conveying his character’s journey.
Another notable standout in the Luna Gale production is Todd Rosenthal’s great set design that switches easily between the characters’ stark realities. The revolving scenes switch between the sparse environment of the hospital waiting room, Caroline’s file-filled mess office, Cindy’s functional but plain home, Karlie and Peter’s low-end apartment, and more. The doors between them let characters (and particularly Caroline) travel from talking with one character in their natural habitat to a stark meeting with another.
Gilman’s examination of family conflict and conflicted CPS workers is thought-provoking. The only conclusions drawn by the poignant humor-laced Luna Gale are that the flawed choice between the system and parents to try protecting children can be more complex than it looks.
By Dyanne Weiss