Each time a headline appears about the death of a brutally abused child, or the removal of badly neglected children by some state Department of Children and Family Services, a slew of questions and recriminations follow.
How could the caseworkers have missed what was going on, and why didn’t they take instant protective action? Why didn’t neighbors, relatives, teachers and others spot the problem and report it?
Along with those questions comes the finger-pointing and the despair, the familiar talk about budget cuts, limited staff, overburdened rehab programs, troubled foster care situations, overwhelmed social workers, the primacy of the biological family and all the rest.
In “Luna Gale,” Rebecca Gilman’s provocative and impassioned play — now in a rip-roaring Goodman Theatre world premiere directed by Robert Falls — the infant of the title is still alive, although she has been brought to a hospital emergency room. So the essential question now facing Caroline (Mary Beth Fisher), a seen-it-all social worker in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is this: Who is best equipped to care for her?
Will her young, meth-addicted, mostly unemployed but bright parents, Karlie (Reyna de Courcy, a jagged toothpick of a girl with electric energy) and Peter (the immensely likable Colin Sphar), actually make it through rehab, counseling programs, home visits and all the rest to emerge as responsible caretakers? Will Karlie’s mom, Cindy (a subtle, disturbing turn by Jordan Baker), a devout fundamentalist Christian with a neat home, steady night-shift job and troubled past, make the proper temporary (or even permanent) guardian for the baby? And how do personal prejudices, office politics and basic human instincts play into the decision-making process?
If you see a great many question marks here it is because so much is at stake in this story, so much is unknowable, so much is subjective, and so much may just be unfixable. The power of Gilman’s play — a fast-paced, ferociously involving work marred only by a couple of exaggerated twists and turns that needlessly up the ante — is that it tries to balance certainty and uncertainty. It ultimately offers a ray of hope, but you might well leave the theater wondering just what is in store for Luna Gale as she moves through her childhood, her teens and (if she makes it) adulthood.
In many ways it is the tension between two middle-aged women — Caroline and Cindy — that drives the action here. Caroline, divorced, childless, overworked and beaten down, is oppressed by Cliff (Erik Hellman, brilliantly repulsive), her impossibly smug younger boss who was given the top job that should rightly have been hers. Cindy, who has found Jesus with a vengeance — and with the help of Pastor Jay (a spot-on Richard Thieriot) — still lives with guilt about her past, and her relationship with her daughter. And as Caroline well knows, even the greatest successes in her field — like Lourdes (Melissa DuPrey), the Latina who has aged out of foster care and is enrolled in college — can ultimately self-destruct.
Fisher (who would make a terrific Hillary Clinton at some point) is a marvel here as she conjures a woman who is accomplished but unsettled, sardonic but vulnerable, manipulative, angry, committed and emotionally scarred.
Gilman’s bristling dialogue continually pops — including a riff about grammar that had Sunday night’s audience laughing and applauding, as well as a shock value line for Karlie that is bound to offend some.
Todd Rosenthal’s photo-realistic rotating set is emblematic of the play’s bureacratic maze, moving seamlessly from ER waiting room, to file-cluttered office, court building vending machine room, generic kitchen, spiffed up apartment and daycare nursery. Kay Voyce’s streetwear costumes are ideally character-defining.
One final note: On the wall of Caroline’s office is a poster titled “Perseverance.” I doubt it is a casual choice. Gilman has doggedly kept at her chosen art, and with “Luna Gale” that devotion has truly paid off.