How we fail our kids, explored brutally on Berkeley stage
by Karen D'Souza, September 8, 2017
There’s no silver spoon waiting for the sick baby in “Luna Gale.”
In this unsettling drama, there are only unruly teenage parents strung out on meth, stifling their cravings with Skittles. On the other end of the custody battle sits an evangelical grandmother trumpeting the end days. In the middle of these warring forces is the harried and careworn social worker Caroline, who must untangle a family knot gnarled over decades in a few weeks, all the while juggling a crushing caseload bursting with children on the brink of ruin and despair.
Shot through with unsettling emotional power, “Luna Gale” is a smart and unflinching study in how we fail our children as a society and as individuals. Tautly directed by Tom Ross in its regional premiere at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre, the bracing drama runs through Oct. 1.
Playwright Rebecca Gilman has honed her ear for the throb and pulse of topical drama for years. Her carefully crafted parables, such as “Spinning into Butter” and “The Crowd You’re in With,” always grapple with hot-button issues that have no easy answers. Here she examines the pitfalls of the Child Protective Services system in which a 25-year veteran like Caroline (the engrossing Jamie Jones) must scheme and plot to stay a step ahead of her micromanaging and smug male boss Cliff (Joshua Marx).
Gilman digs into the way the power structure rewards a bottom-line guy like Cliff, who cares more about budgets than babies, and dings a woman like Caroline, who prioritizes nothing as highly as the welfare of her wards. She may be trapped in a vast looming labyrinth of boxes stuffed with paperwork (set by Kate Boyd) but she never stops trying to connect with her humanity.
That’s why she struggles with little Luna, who was hospitalized in what seems like a clear-cut case of neglect. She can tell that her parents, the sheepish Peter (Devin S. O’Brien) and the strong-willed Karlie (Alix Cuadra) love the baby and each other, but she’s not sure they can stay sober long enough to take care of her. She feels some relief at placing the baby with her grandmother Cindy (Laura Jane Bailey) who seems competent and caring, only to learn later that Cindy’s main priority is to prepare for the rapture. Right now.
Gilman may take some shortcuts with the tapestry of plot and psychology here. Some of the revelations into character feel forced but it’s startling how acutely she navigates the way power dynamics shift beneath your feet.
The wry Caroline soon finds herself battling the ire of the Christian right and she gets led in a fervent prayer (the excellent Kevin Kemp as the preacher) despite her protestations. Cindy finds herself having to go to therapy over a trauma she doesn’t believe in. Carlie must expose parts of her childhood that she preferred to remain hidden.
Cuadra struggles with teasing the nuances out of Karlie’s emotional volatility but O’Brien charts a palpable transformation in Peter’s journey into parenthood. And Jones is simply riveting from start to finish, finding the hard won resolve at the core of everything Caroline does. The actress gives an understated performance that radiates truth.
Throughout it all we watch Caroline fret over her favorite charge, Lourdes (Jennifer Vega), who seems to have a shot at making it through the system unscathed, only to learn that the fight over the fate of a child may be never-ending.
By Rebecca Gilman, presented by Aurora Theatre Company
Through: Oct. 1
Where: Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
Running time: two hours, one intermission
Tickets: $33-$65; 510-843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org