Though well written and excellently acted, Cleveland Play House’s issue-driven ‘Luna Gale’ too edifying to entertain
By Bob Abelman
A year or two ago, a short play called “Legally Addicted” toured Cleveland-area schools and dramatized the opiate epidemic among teens in order to educate and advocate. Many of the kids in attendance — who received community service credit or reduced probation to be there — felt trapped within a public service announcement as the play’s didactic earnestness and frequent teaching moments overpowered things meant to be merely entertaining.
Rebecca Gilman’s “Luna Gale” seems to have had a similar effect on its opening night audience at Cleveland Play House’s Allen Theatre.
Gilman has made a name for herself exploring sensitive and complicated social issues in her dramatic plays, such as racism and white hypocrisy in “Spinning into Butter,” rape and victimhood in “Boy Gets Girl,” and the glass ceiling of social class in “Blue Surge” and “The Glory of Living.” Her latest play, which premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 2014, is no exception.
“Luna Gale,” set in present-day Cedar Rapids, Iowa, examines the fate of a baby who has been taken from her young, crystal meth-addicted parents (Megan King and Jeremiah Clapp) by Caroline (Lee Roy Rogers), the beleaguered social worker assigned to the case. The baby, Luna Gale, is placed in the temporary custody of her born-again grandmother (Angela Pierce), who is receiving spiritual support and legal guidance from Pastor Jay (Donald Carrier).
As is her tendency, Gilman steers the core storyline into even deeper waters.
She underscores the inadequacies of underfunded and understaffed social service agencies by serving up a social worker worn thin and numb by decades of dysfunctional families and an impersonal bureaucracy, as personified by Caroline’s officious supervisor, Cliff (Kenneth Lee).
To further emphasize the sorry state of child and family services in this country, we witness one of Caroline’s success stories — a promising young woman named Lourdes (Athena Colon), who just aged-out of the system — quickly crash and burn.
As the play progresses, Gilman unveils repressed family secrets associated with sexual abuse and the legacy of alcoholism.
And, by having Caroline compromise her own unflinching integrity in order to help the recovering parents regain custody of their baby, Gilman examines the moral ambiguities associated with having to make bad choices when better choices are just not available.
In short, this play is overburdened with weighty, complex, highly dramatic issues and the probing questions they raise.
But this does not account for the opening night audience’s consternation, for this play is beautifully written.
The playwright earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination and a Guggenheim Fellowship for her earlier work and “Luna Gale” received the 2014 American Theatre Critics Association’s New Play Award as well as the Cleveland Play House’s Roe Green Award, which brings the country’s best playwrights to town to develop new work like this.
And the acting by this ensemble of players is excellent as well.
King and Clapp as Luna Gale’s strung-out yet sympathetic parents, Karlie and Peter, are particularly superb. Their talents are best displayed when, late in the play, one of them rises to the challenge of sobriety while the other falls. Both portrayals are layered with realism.
Pierce, as Karlie’s devout and estranged mother, and Lee as Caroline’s micromanaging supervisor, handle the playwright’s abrupt shifts in their characters’ intentions with incredible dexterity and conviction.
And while Rogers is not always on sure footing during the opening night performance, her depiction of social worker Caroline’s unsentimental professional detachment — and the reveal of her reasons for it — are intriguing.
The problem with this production lies in its direction by Austin Pendleton.
It starts with the decision to turn this two-act play (as produced by the Goodman) into an unrelenting two-hour one-act. It continues with the meta-theatrics of having each of the play’s six locations on stage simultaneously and side by side. Purposefully exposed support beams are seen in each of Michael Schweikardt’s set pieces and behind them is the theater’s barren backstage.
Characters walk through one set to get to another and make eye contact with others who are loitering on stage and not in their scene. Each scene is announced with a dramatic light shift and accompanying sound effect, designed by Keith Parham and Joshua Schmidt.
All this is an obvious but curious effort to accentuate artificiality in the storytelling, which flies in the face of the realism generated by the playwright and embraced by the performers. As such, this production of “Luna Gale” calls to mind low-budgeted PSA programming like “Legally Addicted,” which places the obligation to educate over the desire to entertain.
Perhaps the opening night audience would have been less disquieted if they received community service credit for their attendance. CV
WHAT: “Luna Gale”
WHERE: Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through March 20
TICKETS & INFO: $20-$78, call 216-241-6000 or visit clevelandplayhouse.com
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on March 6, 2016.