Playwright Rebecca Gilman is no stranger to the overlooked issues of today’s society, and her newest play, “Luna Gale,” is a testament to that. The play, which is premiering at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, tells the story of infant Luna Gale, her meth-addicted parents, her deceptively normal grandmother, and the social worker in charge of her case. And while Gilman is mindful of the judgments and beliefs that exist in accordance with addictions and the foster care system, she is not afraid to question these judgments and make her audience think past their gut-level reactions.
When Luna is removed from her strung-out mother Karlie (Reyna de Courcy) and father Peter (Colin Sphar) and placed with her grandmother Cindy (Jordan Baker), it seems as though everything will turn out all right for the child.
Looks, however, can be entirely deceiving; no character is truly as he or she seems. They all have secrets — secrets that fuel their actions and motivations—and the fallacies they live by quickly unravel and give way to truth.
Following Luna’s placement with Cindy, a series of events and revelations unfold that prompt the social worker, Caroline (played by Mary Beth Fisher), to make some questionable choices. And while these choices may appear to be wrong at first, it is soon understood that they are the lesser of several evils. Fisher’s performance of the social worker, which bursts with unflinching resilience in the face of adversity, is both convincing and unsettling. While Caroline manages to skillfully expose the inner workings of a failing system, she also manages to portray a character who isn’t afraid to bend a few rules to achieve what she believes to be right. It makes one wonder how often this rule breaking occurs and whether it is done with as much ease as Fisher’s character exhibits.
One gets the sense that much of the audience’s attention and support lies with Fisher’s portrayal of the overworked and underappreciated social worker. By the time the curtains closed, however, I found most of my admiration directed toward Colin Sphar, whose portrayal of the rough-around-the-edges Peter was simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking. Though he first comes off as this careless and clueless boy, Peter proves himself to be a hero—a hero willing to do anything to get his daughter back and willing to take on the hardships and horrors facing his crumbling family.
Sphar’s character is not what I expected him to be in the slightest, and yet he was the character I felt most drawn to. Peter does his absolute best, despite many thwarted efforts, to provide his daughter with the love she deserves from a father. His admirable efforts are, of course, echoed by his girlfriend and the mother of his child, Karlie. And while de Courcy’s character does not prove to be as admirable as her boyfriend, she shows the audience how much she loves Luna through the sacrifices she makes to ensure that Luna receives the love a child so desperately needs from their parents. A love, interestingly enough, that Karlie never received in her own youth.
The play could not have been more perfectly cast, and I applaud director Robert Falls for leading this band of incredibly talented actors through a play of finding hope in a seemingly hopeless world of bureaucracy and red tape.
The story’s forward movement was propelled by Todd Rosenthal’s brilliant revolving set. A series of rooms—including an office, a living room, and a kitchen—are interlinked and work together to tell a profound story all their own.
The story is also ushered along by the captivating—and all too real—dialogue between the characters, and as such, there is little music accompanying scenes. And while the lack of music lends a sense of realism to the play—after all, it’s not often that there is music playing in the background of our daily lives—it also allows the movements behind the stage to be heard by the audience. Rolling set pieces, doors closing, actors and crew crossing the stage can all be heard, even in seats far away from the stage, and the sounds take away from the scene at hand.
Yet this is a small flaw that does little to take away from the brilliance of Gilman’s piece, a brilliance that must be seen rather than heard or read about. “Luna Gale” is a play of reconciliation and redemption, though those who are redeemed and reconciled and the ways in which this comes about are not what one might expect. Gilman's unsubtle commentary on the flaws of social work and our foster care system brings to light the unfair prejudices and judgments society has about at-risk children, teens, parents, and even grandparents.
And sometimes, as Gilman’s play posits, the misdeeds of children are no fault of their own, but the fault of parents and the system that was supposed to help them and failed. It would be right of us, as members of society, to remember that.