The set up:
How do we fail our children? How do we knowingly or unknowingly - on purpose or by circumstance, cause harm to those young souls we have guardianship over? And who’s to say which one of us is the most fit to raise children in the first place?
These are the questions we’re asked to chew on in Rebecca Gilman’s moral dilemma play, Luna Gale, a story informed by a trip the playwright once took to the emergency room. There she witnessed a drug-addicted mother give concise and responsibly loving instructions over the phone to the caregiver tasked with watching her baby. In spite of everything, could this mother actually be a good parent, Gillman wondered? The result is an ethically stirring drama that plays whiplash with our notions of right and wrong in what turns out to be anything but a clear cut situation.
Karlie and Peter are teenage meth addicts incapable of taking care of their child, Luna, until they get clean. Caroline, the social worker attached to their case sees no reason not to hand temporary guardianship of the baby over to Karlie’s mother, Cindy. But then Cindy, a devout Evangelist, requests adoption. Caroline has a thing against people of faith, is that clouding her judgment? It’s possible the pressures of other people’s biases, including her boss and Cindy’s pastor, are affecting her custody decision as well. Hand baby Luna over permanently to her grandmother or eventually reunite her with her (fingers crossed) recovered parents. The choice is anything but simple.
It’s the pauses for thought – the silences as characters struggle for words or understanding that keep us on the edge of our seats in Director Seth Gordon’s smartly thriller-like production. The first bit of quiet comes in the emergency room where Karlie (a perfectly moody and petulant Tanith Albright) and Peter (sensitively played by Jeremy Gee) wait to see if their baby is all right. It’s Peter that’s silent, not out of concern, but because he’s knocked out higher than a kite. It takes several punches to the head from Karlie for him to realize that the news the social worker Caroline (a strong yet fragile Carolyn Johnson) is telling them is that yes, Luna is fine (despite their neglect) but that no, they can’t keep her.
Karlie’s panicked call to her estranged mom, Cindy, sets up the second moment of quiet. It seems to make sense that Cindy will take care of the baby while Karlie and Peter try to clean up their act. Caroline’s visit to Cindy’s home to interview her to see if she’s fit to take temporary guardianship goes well. That is until Cindy brings up her personal savior Jesus, her church and her preparation for “end of days”. Now it’s Caroline’s turn to pause. It’s actually more of a silent shudder. A quick one, but we all see it and so does Cindy. Caroline won’t give Luna back to her parents at this point and she certainly doesn’t want to put the child into foster care, but neither is she crazy about placing the baby with a religious extremist woman either. A woman who doesn’t just want temporary custody, she wants Luna to herself. A woman Caroline describes as a “crazy Christian” to her holier than thou, in more ways than one, boss Cliff (played with just the right amount of sanctimony by Kevin Crouch)
The brilliance of Gillman’s script is that just when we think we know whose side we’re on when it comes to the care of baby Luna, she shifts the moral sands under our feet, adding in more and more information and making us question who is doing harm to who in this situation. Surely Caroline’s bias against religion is a bad thing. Or at least unfair. But then just look at how great a case worker she is with Lordes (a sweet Melissa Molano) a newly emancipated ward of the state that Caroline has successfully brought through the system. Surely that shows what a great professional she is, right?
Not so fast. The idea Caroline comes up with to tip the case in Karlie and Peter’s favor is not only illegal, but it’s amoral in the basest of senses. Even though it seems that both Karlie and Peter are actually on the right path and ready to take care of a daughter they love dearly. After all, the young couple have reason to believe that placing Luna with Karlie’s mother is the worst thing possible anyone could do.
But just when we’re certain Cindy is the one being wronged, Gillman slathers another layer. She may be holy, but Cindy is far from faultless in this situation. Fault far worse than the church can help her with, despite Pastor Jay (a calmly oily Justin Doran) attempting to advocate custody on her behalf.
The climax of the pauses takes place in Caroline’s office during an unscheduled meeting between Cliff, Pastor Jay and her. Each one is withholding information that prejudices them to the case and each one takes their time deciding when and how they’ll bring it up. Caroline’s information is the meatiest and you can hear our intake of breathe as she reveals her true bias in the case, bit by unhurried bit. Is she telling the truth? Are her actions pure? In the quiet of the scene, our minds race trying to figure it all out.
Gillman stays one step ahead of us though, saving the answers to who and what is just in this situation for the very end. Until we get our final perfect silence. One person alone in the room with Luna. Singing a lullaby in fits and starts. The quiet we are witness to this time is both happiness and sorrow. Perhaps the right thing was done. Perhaps the means didn’t justify. Or maybe when it comes to the care of a child, neither Social Services, the extended family nor the parents have the definitive answer as to what is best.
The sands don’t shift so much as just pile on top of each other, grain by grain, in a questionable dune.
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One of the things Stages does so well, is introduce us to new young talent. They program for it and they cast for it. In this case, it’s the splendid performances of Tanith Albright and Jeremy Gee that we’re treated to and equally they shine. Albright with her perma-pissed offness and Gee with his journey from addict to tender husband and father. Both are ones to watch.
Another thing Stages does well is find great design talent and work with them again and again. Set Designer Jon Young and Properties Designer Jodi Bobrovsky echo Gillman’s ever-changing moral compass with a basket full of set pieces that wheel in and out from behind a retractable parent and child hand printed wall. Emergency room. Social services observation room. Lunchroom. Caroline’s office. Cindy’s home. Karlie and Peter’s home. All spaces come to life with a presto change/quick glide onto the stage, keeping the action moving and the mystery chugging forward.
A great script is a great start, but it takes a team to create a terrific production. Luna Gale has and is both.
Luna Gale continues through May 28 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For tickets, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $21-$65.