‘Luna Gale’ Spotlights Fraught Daily Dramas

Caught between the Headlights & the Headlines

Rebecca Gilman says it took her 10 years to find the plot for Luna Gale. From the performances of the extremely talented cast directed by Braden Abraham at The Seattle Rep, one can see why. This play is written from the lives of overworked social workers, young, earnest parents hooked on crystal meth, plus rippling entanglements with parents, courts, and Christians. All considered, ten years is pretty fast.

The plot Gilman found follows Caroline, a veteran social worker in Iowa’s Department of Human Services as she deals with a single case out the 80 she’s assigned. Pamela Reed inhabits the tired, burnt out, Caroline. She’s five years and a few months from retiring (“not that she’s counting”), has to deal with Cliff (Alex Matthews) a micro-managing boss who suspects Caroline has failed to expose corruption. Both Reed and Matthews mix it up in this power struggle. If you happened to catch Reed’s fierce combativeness in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, you know she’s ready, no matter how tired she appears.

This “case” that has the fate of the baby Luna Gale in the balance, begins with drugged up Karlie (Hannah Mootz) and Peter (Drew Highlands) in the emergency room waiting for news of how their sick daughter, Luna Gale, is doing. Their “food” is Skittles, which Karlie has to  force feed the crashing Peter, even reminding him to chew. Caroline walks in and immediately reads the scene—they are crystal meth users. Karlie’s answers slide around the truth, and Caroline expertly calls out the changes. Drug use puts their daughter at risk, so Caroline places Luna under the state’s protection until a judge can figure the mess out. She tells them of her decision and when their day in court will be.

While matters are pending in court, Caroline places Luna with Karlie’s mother—Luna’s grandmother—as kinship care. Kinship care gets some financial support, which Cindy (Anne Allgood) initially brushes off. Her goal is much bigger, she wants to adopt Luna, which would mean the court would have to terminate Karlie and Peter’s parental rights. This flashes by just once in any detail, and after that everyone uses the system’s acronym: TPR (Termination of Parental Rights). Three little letters. Simple. What’s the big deal?

Before Caroline understood the reach of Cindy’s plan, Cindy had shared her journey to finding “Jesus as her personal savior.” Caroline laughs, and Cindy wonders what’s so funny about that. Caroline says she always hears that saying as “personal trainer.” When she talks casually about Cindy the “crazy Christian” later with Cliff, he uses her words as a sign of bias and perhaps she’s not well suited to continue investigating this case.

Cindy gets Pastor Jay (Adrian LaTourelle) and an unseen lawyer from her church to support her efforts to adopt Luna. When Cindy gets carried away with her preparation for the end times, Pastor Jay tells Caroline that Cindy sometimes doesn’t care much about “situational thinking.” Caroline says “her job is to deal with ‘situational thinking'” and she has to recommend to the court what her investigation shows would be best for Luna.

We later see that Pastor Jay knows Cliff, too. They met at a Christian retreat.

Cindy has a good case, she’s employed, stable, and could provide for Luna’s material needs. And also raise her as a Christian, something Karlie is dead set against. Karlie and Peter have to pull their act enough together to save Luna, and maybe in the process save themselves. Caroline’s—and the court’s—preference is to keep a family together if at all possible. Caroline at the end of Act One follows a hunch given the timing and nature of Karlie’s acting out when she was fifteen. Her mom had just re-married. Why such an abrupt acting out? Was there something going on with the new step-father? Is Caroline leading them, or has she stumbled onto their only chance to hold their family together?

Also woven in is Caroline’s relationship with Lourdes (Pilar O’Connell), a former “case” with whom she is making the effort to remain friends. Lourdes has just turned 18, which “ages her out” of foster care and gives her full legal rights. She has enrolled in the local two-year college and trying to adjust.

Praise also falls on the creative crew. The sets by scenic designer Micheal Canio literally glide into place. There are at least six sets and the transitions take no longer than 20 seconds. This gives this production a feeling closer to a movie or TV drama than a play because of its rapid shifts from one setting to another. The sets are: the emergency room, Caroline’s office, Cindy’s kitchen, Karlie and Peter’s kitchen, a break room at the court house, and a visiting room at the court with a two-way mirror. The fluorescent lights of bureaucratic architecture are placed facing the audience on panels that slide or rise out of the way for set changes. Genius.

Gilman’s ear is open and very well tuned. There are no character defining monologues. Everyone muddles along. Her skill at dialogue reminded me of David Mamet. Perhaps he could have helped with the search for a plot. As the New Yorker writer John Lahr was leaving David Mamet’s Vermont studio he noticed a note card that Mamet let him keep. Lahr glanced at the card.

A) Life, maan . . .

B) . . . life.

A) It is so crazy—let me tell you: if you saw it in a movie, you would not believe it. You know why? BECAUSE IT HAS NO PLOT.

Plot? A set of conflicts, judgement calls and shrewd guesses. The play ends with yet another difficult set of decisions. We know everyone’s tangled lives will continue.

Luna Gale by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Braden Abraham. Runtime 2 hrs, 15 min. with one intermission. Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer Street, Seattle Center, Queen Anne. 7:30 PM Thurs-Sun, 2 PM Sat & Sun matinees. Box Office: 206-443-2222 | 877-900-9285, http://www.seattlerep.org/Buy/Tickets/. Runs March 4 – 26.

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