Review: “Luna Gale”

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through Feb. 23
Tickets: $25-$81
Phone: 312-443-3800

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Playwright Rebecca Gilman is a master of audience manipulation. She’s amazingly adept at fleshing out a complicated social problem with well-conceived, often flawed characters, then letting its complexity unfold in such a way that our perspective keeps shifting.

Such is the case with the splendidly directed (by Robert Falls) and acted world premiere of her “Luna Gale” at Goodman Theatre. And what a case it is. Literally. Caroline, a compassionate but burned-out social worker in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has to decide whether the title infant, brought to the emergency room extremely ill, should eventually be returned to her meth-addicted teenage parents, Karlie and Peter, or remanded to the care of her maternal grandmother, Cindy, an evangelical Christian.

At first it seems like a no brainer. Compulsively eating candy and pacing the hospital waiting room, the hyped-up Karlie (rail-thin Reyna de Courcy) hardly is a fit parent, and Peter (Colin Sphar) is passed out in a chair looking like a lout. Although Caroline informs them that the goal of child protective services is “reunification,” it quickly becomes apparent that the overburdened system doesn’t have room in all the rehab and counseling sessions required for them to keep custody. Cindy (Jordan Baker), nervous and accommodating when Caroline (Mary Beth Fisher) visits her well-maintained home, comes across as the better choice, even if her references to Jesus and Pastor Jay (Richard Thieriot, spot-on) are a little off-putting.

Karlie, however, is vehemently opposed to having her baby placed with her mother, with whom she’s had a troubled relationship (to say the least), and the plot thickens when Cindy seeks permanent custody, enlisting the aid of Pastor Jay and a lawyer. Caroline, who has personal issues influencing her decisions, begins to regret them, especially since Karlie and Peter are trying to clean up their act. In an effort to help them and rectify the situation, she does something that clearly crosses the line. Or does it? Is it wrong if her gut impulses are right?

Gilman tackles these questions and more. While little Luna Gale is just entering the system, Lourdes (Melissa DuPrey) has “aged out” at 18 after a life in foster care. College-bound, she visits Caroline to say goodbye and is congratulated as a success story, but things don’t turn out as they should. Cliff (Erik Hellman), Caroline’s smug, by-the-book new boss whose agenda is his own advancement, has a hand in this, and his frequent clashes with the 25-year veteran case worker, who knows she deserved his job, highlight the many things wrong with the system.

In a sense, the strengths and weaknesses are embodied by Caroline, superbly played by Fisher. Tough-minded but sympathetic, weary and overworked but unafraid of a fight, she’s a little like the doctor the actress recently portrayed in “The Normal Heart,” only much more vulnerable. Her past comes out, albeit inappropriately, in a remarkable scene with Cliff and Pastor Jay, who seem to take advantage of her raw pain to elicit a conversion, only to have her fiercely turn the tables — prompting a round of applause from the opening night audience. Caroline’s canny solution to the custody battle also offers a ray of hope at the end, an instance of the system working in spite of itself, thanks to a caring individual.

While de Courcy’s Karlie has feigned indifference and not-so-repressed rage down pat, and Baker’s Cindy is study in insecurity and self-righteous denial, it’s Sphar’s forthright, well-meaning Peter who emerges as the character we really root for. As he gradually grows into a responsible adult, as well as a truth-teller to both Karlie and Cindy, our perceptions of him change completely, and by the finale, the lout of the opening is long gone.

Todd Rosenthal’s rotating set and Robert Wierzel’s lighting perfectly capture the ambiance of everywhere from the stark hospital waiting room to the social workers’ office and playroom, as well as Cindy’s lived-in kitchen and Karlie and Peter’s tidied-up apartment. Kaye Voyce’s costumes include lots of little touches that help define the characters. On the whole, though, it’s Gilman’s writing and the acting that make “Luna Gale” one of the most compelling shows of the year so far.