Gripping and tragic, the Stages Repertory Theatre production of Luna Gale features strong and memorable performances that force the audience to face the challenges of family situations that are, for whatever excruciating reason, untenable. When I walked into the theater, I thought Rebecca Gilman’s family drama would center on a baby named Luna Gale, but the story really belongs to Caroline, an experienced but burnt-out social worker with wounds of her own.
Played by Carolyn Johnson, the same actor who brilliantly portrayed Judy Garland in the 2016 Stages production of End of the Rainbow, Caroline is at once a victim and manipulator of the bureaucratic system for which she works. She has her own family secrets, and she has channeled her pain into helping victimized or neglected children. In this case, the child is Luna, an infant from a home compromised by a risky cocktail of drug addiction, immaturity and irresponsibility.
Director Seth Gordon allows us to consider the lives of Luna’s amped-up and drug-addicted teenage parents, Karlie and Peter (wonderfully played by Tanith Albright and Jeremy Gee). The pair’s meth use makes them shaky caregivers both literally and figuratively as they self-medicate with Skittles and petulance, all the while stepping on landmines of regret that push them further from custody of their daughter.
Johnson’s interpretation of Caroline—her aversion to fun, her entrenched workaholism—are utterly believable and give the sense this social worker is just as trapped in a no-win script as any of her clients. Yes, there are “rules” and protocols Caroline must follow, but Gilman’s play suggests that dealing with people is more of an art than a science, relying heavily on intuition and the kinds of experiences that can't be conveyed in any textbook.
Deciding where to place Luna Gale is no easy task. Caroline initially considers Cindy, the child’s grandmother played by Elaine Robinson, as a suitable caregiver. But once she learns Cindy is an ardent born-again Christian, Caroline begins to think Luna’s parents, however flawed, should raise the child. Gilman is not really criticizing Christianity or anti-Christian bias per se, but rather dramatizing how religion fits into the puzzle of making decisions that will affect the well-being of an innocent child. Cindy says, “I think I’m helping,” but the irony is that everyone involved thinks they are helping—they just do it in radically different ways.
With quickly shifting scenes from hospitals to apartments to offices to playrooms, the sets are so realistic that you feel like you are in line for the next bureaucratic appointment designed to turn around your own terrible life. The play is not exactly an idealistic ringing endorsement of “the system,” yet it is a reminder that there are not a lot of other options for helping those individuals who stumble while trying to negotiate the challenges and intricacies of adult life.
You will be surprised by the ending—Caroline’s wishes for Luna Gale are sort of half-fulfilled, but in a way that leaves the audience wondering what will happen to this child in the long run. This is a play in which no options are ideal, and like all good theater, you are forced to take sides even when you are not particularly confident in any of the choices. Kind of like in real life, when social workers must make hard choices, every difficult day.
This is an intense and compelling play, inspired by Gilman's real trip to an emergency room that left the playwright wondering whether a drug-addicted couple could ever make good parents. With drug addiction increasing in American culture, it is a question that won’t go away anytime soon. But while you are pondering the many questions this play brings to the surface, leave the kids at home. This one is just for grown-ups, both for content and language.
Through May 28. From $21. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, Suite 101. 713-527-0123. stagestheatre.com