Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Stoneham Theatre Presents The Powerful Drama "Luna Gale" by Rebecca Gilman - Through Sunday, November 8

Luke Murtha as Peter
Maria DeCostis as Karlie
Paula Plum as Caroline
"Luna Gale" by Rebecca Gilman
Stoneham Theatre
Through November 8 

This season of Boston area theater is proving to be so exciting and successful that I may have to invest in a bigger thesaurus. I am running out of superlatives.  The latest production to knock my socks off is the stunning "Luna Gale" currently playing at the Stoneham Theatre through this Sunday. Rebecca Gilman's script is complex and provocative.  Teenage meth addicts, Peter (Luke Murtha) and Karlie (Maria DeCotis), lose custody of their baby, Luna Gale, when their neglect almost causes the infant to die of dehydration.  The department of Child Protective Services steps in and veteran caseworker Caroline (Paula Plum) is forced to play God and make recommendations to her supervisor (Jacob Athyal) and to the judge about what may be best for Luna Gale in terms of custody arrangements.

Things get complicated when Karlie's Mom, Cindy (Stay Fischer) aggressively tries to gain permanent custody, with the support of her pastor (Bob Mussett).  Rounding out the cast is Ally Dawson as Lourdes, a former ward of the state who has turned eighteen and has been turned out into the world.

Director Rebecca Bradshaw takes Ms. Gilman's strong script and uses is as the foundation upon which this fine ensemble of actors build believable characters. Each character has the potential to come across as a stereotype, but thanks to great writing, directing and acting, each one displays shades of good and bad, making them three-dimensional individuals rather than cartoons.  If conflict is the essence of great drama, then this playwright has mined a rich motherlode of conflict on many levels and between overlapping pairings of characters.  Here are some of the conflicts that were obvious to me as the story unfolded:
  • Peter and Karlie's inner conflicts that drive them towards meth abuse
  • The conflict between their teenage impulses and their responsibilities as parents
  • Karlie's ongoing war with her mother, including conflict over faith
  • Peter and Karlie's distrust of Caroline
  • Caroline's strained relationship with her bureaucratic supervisor, Cliff
  • Pastor Jay, Cliff and Cindy's fervent evangelical faith versus Caroline's anti-Christian sentiments.
  • Caroline's inner conflicts between caring for the children she is sworn to protect and her own personal history of hurt, and her teetering on the verge of complete burnout.
  • Lourdes' ambivalence towards Caroline, who has supported her but who also had separated her form her older sister after their mother had died.
  • The conflict within Cliff between his professional responsibilities and his personal faith.
Each of these conflicts is fleshed out with nuance as the characters bump up against one another.  An overarching theme of the play are the questions: "Who will save little Luna Gale, and who gets to decide what kind of salvation is appropriate?  To whom does she belong?"  The author offers no easy answers or resolution, but a very heart-warming interim solution is offered at the conclusion of the play.

Each actor has moments when he or she shines most brightly.
  • Jacob Athyal is strong as Cliff. He is in disagreement with Caroline throughout much of the play.  He has been brought in to the troubled agency to stem the tide of scandal after several children have died and been lost while in the state's custody. He plays it by the book - until the book conflicts with his own personal faith.  There is a touching moment near the end of the play when Cliff offers an olive branch to Caroline in recognition of her twenty-five years of sacrificial service.
  • Ally Dawson as Lourdes appears in only two scenes, but in those scenes we see an arc of decay of her character.  We see her excited about her new found emancipation from guardianship and the launch of her college career.  Then we see her after she has been reunited with her sister after a separation of seven years.  Something has changed, and Caroline is concerned enough to ask to be listed on Lourdes' phone as an Emergency Contact.  Ms. Dawson does a great deal with this small but crucial role.
  • Maria DeCostis as Karlie runs a broad spectrum of emotions - flashes of irrational rage, panic, despair over recounting an incident of abuse, and an addict's inability to handle temptation.  In many ways, she is as infantile as her young daughter whom she tries to re-acquire.  Ms. DeCostis shows us vividly the hopeless complications of "babies having babies." 
  • Stacy Fisher as Cindy balances the ferociousness of a mother bear protecting her grand-daughter, Luna Gale, and the unblinking fanaticism of a newly converted fundamentalist resisting the forces of Satan and "the world." She is both broken and defiant as she learns details of the abuse that Karlie suffered when she was fifteen.
  • Luke Murtha as Peter begins the play in an almost catatonic state from his meth addiction. We see him slowly come alive and get himself together one small step at a time. The culmination of his transformation is revealed with wonderful subtlety as the play ends with him tenderly serenading his infant daughter as they get ready to embark on a new life together.
  • Bob Mussett is both sanctimonious and down to earth as Pastor Jay.  The scene in which he and Cliff pray for Caroline is both hilarious and deeply disturbing, especially when he tells her that "God will love you, even if you try to resist Him - He will force His love upon you." These ill-advised words are verbal IEDs to a woman who is steeped in fighting issues of sexual abuse that have been perpetrated on her young clients.
  • Paula Plum as Caroline delivers a tour de force performance. She is on stage almost the entire play, and she embodies the harried, bedraggled, over-worked, dedicated, down trodden caseworker who is as much a victim of the system of inadequate resources and rampant misfeasance as are her under-served clients.  Fighting burnout, she still manages to care.  Her caring is exemplified in her continuing concern for Lourdes, and we see another piece of Caroline's heart break when Lourdes does not thrive.
Jacob Athyal as Cliff
Paula Plum as Caroline
Bob Mussett as Pastor Jay
"Luna Gale" by Rebecca Gilman
Stoneham Theatre
Through November 8 

The genius of this play is that we come to care about each character and his or her fate.  The work of these actors is enhanced by the excellent creative team of Scenic Designer Kristin Loeffler, Lighting Designer Wen-Ling Liao, Costume Designer Chelsea Kerl and Sound Designer David Reiffel.

This play throws a harsh spotlight on a broad variety of societal issues, and causes us to think and to ask, "What can we do to make a difference when so many things are wrong?"  Addiction, foster care, the welfare state, religious bigotry - they all come under Ms. Gilman microscope.  And the sight we see is not a pretty one.

The play runs only through this weekend. It should be seen.  In another role at another theater, Ms. Plum's character intoned: "Attention must be paid!"  This edict applies equally well in this situation.



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