Fort Worth — The stakes couldn’t be higher. A baby’s future, even her life, is in the balance, though she’s surrounded by people who seem determined to do the right thing for her. But in Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale, a co-production of Circle Theatre with Theatre TCU, a memorable ensemble cast makes it hard (and emotionally exhausting) to know what’s best for this tiny girl, or who we can trust.
Even the onstage space looks tired. In Clare Floyd DeVries’ utilitarian set design, the one metal exit door slams itself shut, and stacks of small, same-sized storage boxes overwhelm the space. Each one marks a life—a “client” who needs help from this human services agency. The only sign of life is a teddy bear knocked sideways and left on the floor. Warmth, compassion, humanity (and teddy bears)—they all take a beating in this world.
“Who do you belong to, huh?” asks social worker Caroline (a wonderfully weary Lisa Fairchild). She’s not sure it’s the child’s barely adult parents, the meth-experimenting Karlie and Peter (raw-nerve performances from TCU’s Ashlee Waldbauer and Quinn Moran). Grandmother Cindy (Krista Scott nails every note of the righteous woman) might be a better bet, she thinks—but Caroline’s view may change. And in the meantime, she’s in her usual spot, trying to do good in a system that keeps cutting budgets and “consolidating” (read: shrinking) staff. A drug rehab program is what Karlie and Peter need—but with a wait list of 200 people, how can Caroline help them? And their story is only one of 90 in Caroline’s case load: she’s also trying to make sure that Lourdes (TCU’s Rachel Poole in a vivid performance), an 18-year-old who’s aging out of foster care, won’t stumble as she heads for college and the world.
KARLIE: And here I thought I was special.
CAROLINE: You are! You all are. But there are so many of you and you just keep coming and I can’t seem to slow it down so I can figure out how to save you or even just...keep you alive long enough to…have a life. That’s all. Just have a life.
Playwright Rebecca Gilman (Spinning Into Butter, Boy Gets Girl) has built her considerable reputation on problem plays. Tough and complex, her tangled plots put characters through the moral wringer, and with Luna Gale, she gives us another doozy. Even divorce lawyers don’t see as much human agony, as many conflicted and mutually exclusive wishes and needs, as the average low-paid, overloaded case manager who works to help parents, kids, grandparents and families get through the next few weeks and years of life.
Director Jennifer Engler draws nuanced, in-the-moment performances from the cast. These are real men and women, living life without a script, taken by surprise as their buttons are pushed, biases are revealed, and long-ago events come crashing into the present. Peter and Karlie seem more “together” each time they’re onstage—but will past history make it hard for them to make real change? Caroline’s own story will affect her dealings with Cindy and her evangelical pastor Jay (Jakie Cabe in a smooth, hard-to-read portrayal). She’s biased, yes—but does that mean her decisions are wrong? And is Cindy’s all-consuming faith, a faith pastor Jay says is more important that human love—a plus or a minus? In the end, it’s our buttons being pushed too, our biases uncovered, our own histories coming into play.
The more these characters reveal themselves, the farther we feel ourselves spinning away from the heart of the matter: Who will get Luna? Caroline’s cool relationship with her boss Cliff (Ken Orman in an edgy, keep-‘em-guessing performance) turns threatening and tense, particularly in a scene where she feels cornered by Cliff and pastor Jay. Our view of Karlie shifts as she says Peter loves her “too much”—and Peter, confronting Cindy with truths her own daughter won’t tell her, startles us into taking a new look at father and grandmother—and swinging our focus toward the unseen baby lying in the stroller between them.
Young composer Parker Greenwood’s original piano score for Luna Gale adds a lyricism that reminds us human love is the center of this story. And Ryan Matthieu Smith’s costumes effectively reveal character, never more so than in his transitioning of Karlie and Peter from shabby meth-heads to preppie almost-respectability (piercings aside).
In Luna Gale we see well-intentioned people driven to anger, defiance, hypocrisy, manipulation, surrender. Some disappear, but not all. One person steps up, willing to try and go the distance. And though we know there aren’t any guarantees, Gilman’s gift—leaving us with a small, warm circle of hope—feels beautiful and right.
We wish them well.