What life experiences do you bring to your job and how do those experiences affect the way you handle your job? Those questions are raised and considered in Rebecca Gilman’s “Luna Gale.” A first-rate production of the play opened on October 21 at Capital Stage.
To explore those questions, Ms. Gilman focuses her story on a middle-aged social worker (Caroline) who is confronted with a dispute between a mother and daughter over the care and custody of the daughter’s infant child (the titular Luna Gale). The play opens with the daughter (Karlie) strung out on meth with Luna’s father (Peter) while they wait to meet Caroline in her office. Caroline immediately identifies the couple’s drugged out state, but she commits to helping them, if they are willing to help themselves.
With that opening scene, the play appears on track to present a tragic tale of the unmarried teenage couple and the procession of foster care placements that seem to be the way the infant’s youth will unfold. But Caroline is hoping for something better. Karlie’s mother (Cindy) wants to raise the child, and she appears to offer a brighter future for Luna. But then Caroline learns of Cindy’s deep evangelical faith, and she begins to see a better future for the child in a home with her parents, if Karlie and Peter can just get their acts together. From that point, suffice it to say that complications ensue, making the future for Luna and the continuing efforts of Caroline all the more problematic.
The play is not perfect. In fact, it is as flawed as the characters in it. Ms. Gilman misses several opportunities to deliver a dramatic punch in favor of extended plot contrivances that create a sense of cliff-hanger endings to many of the play’s 14 scenes (in two acts). One of the most difficult of these contrivances (for me, at least) concerns the evangelical faith of Cindy and two other characters. A critical scene in the second act could have been the moment to dramatize Caroline’s conundrum, but, instead, it develops a wholly separate plot-line that makes the scene darkly comic, instead of personally tragic.
The play also misses the mark in its conclusion, about which I dare not say more except to note that it left many in the opening night audience feeling good, so it certainly has that going for it. But if Caroline is intended to be the central character, and if her angst is intended to represent the study of the questions I indicated at the outset, then the potential to deliver a powerful dramatic (albeit existential) answer is lost by the story’s resolution.
Beyond that spoiler tease, I must not go. Instead, see the play yourself. You may well find far more reasons to praise it than I have.
What we will undoubtedly be able to agree on, however, the playwright’s success or lack thereof notwithstanding, is the excellence of this production. Directed by Michael Stevenson (the company’s producing artistic director), the play moves quickly through its 14 scenes with each played wonderfully by the strong cast Mr. Stevenson has assembled.
That cast is led by the marvelous performance of Amy Resnick as Caroline. Ms. Resnick has previously put her acting skills on display at Cap Stage with great performances in “August: Osage County” and “Blackberry Winter,” so it came as no surprise to see her take on so perfectly the role of the committed and yet conflicted social worker with her own difficult past overlain on her desire to help people struggling with their own demons. (Struggling with demons, by the way, can also be seen as one of Ms. Gilman’s intended themes, as all seven of the play’s characters, in one way or another, definitely struggle, or have struggled, with them.) But Ms. Resnick rejects melodrama in her portrayal, leaving her character open to interpretation, which is, I think, what Ms. Gilman wanted and what Ms. Resnick determined to do. She’s really terrific.
The supporting cast is also strong. Ian Hopps, in particular, stands out as Peter. The arc that his character spans over the course of the two acts would be challenging for any actor, but Mr. Hopps moves effortlessly from drugged out meth addict to the hopeful father-to-be. Equally impressive is Lauren Hirsch as Karlie. Her character is in constant turmoil, and she conveys the effects of that turmoil in each of her scenes.
The others in the cast are Shannon Mahoney (as Cindy), Aaron Wilton (as Caroline’s supervisor), Peter Story (as a minister), and Jezabel Olivares (as another of Caroline’s patients). Of these Ms. Mahoney and Mr. Story warrant the most praise. Ms. Mahoney portrays the true believer as a stereotype until her own demon is revealed in the second act. At that point, she conveys the mix of indignation and guilt that suggests why Caroline distrusts her as Luna’s possible guardian. Mr. Story has that one critical scene when Caroline if forced to confront directly Cindy’s evangelical faith. He plays it believably and convincingly, leaving no doubt as to the level of his character’s faith.
The production is aided by the technical work of Timothy McNamara (scenic design), Ron Madonia (lighting design), Rebecca Redmond (costumes) and Ed Lee (sound). Mr. Lee merits special commendation for the musical buffers he provides during the many clunky scenic changes that are required by Ms. Gilman’s script. They soften the transitions from one scene to the next, as does Mr. Stevenson’s blocking wherein characters begin to relate to each other and their circumstances as the lights slowly come back up at the start of a scene. It’s a subtle, but effective, way to diminish the negative impact of the movement of all the furniture and other props that are carried on and off the small stage between scenes. (In fact, the play probably isn’t as well suited for the Cap Stage layout as it might be in a larger proscenium stage.)
As with almost every Capital Stage production, “Luna Gale” will elicit different reactions and attitudes. Some plays work better for some people than they do for others. What is beyond dispute, however, is the quality of any Capital Stage production. This one again establishes that the company is as good as a professional theatrical organization can be.
Performances of “Luna Gale” continue at Capital Stage through November 19. Tickets and information are available at the box office (2215 J Street), by phone (916-995-5464) or online (capstage.org).