Blown away by Aurora's ‘Luna Gale’
by Ilana Walder-Biesanz, September 9, 2017
In the words of a character from Luna Gale, deciding a child’s future is an “awesome responsibility.” In this absorbing play, receiving its Bay Area premiere at Aurora Theatre, social worker Caroline must determine what to do about the case of baby Luna. Her meth-addicted parents are trying to shape up and get her back, while her grandmother Cindy wants to formally adopt. Religion colors everyone’s motives: Cindy wants to “save” the baby and enlists the support of her pastor, but Cindy’s end-of-days evangelism gives Caroline pause. The resulting machinations lead to conflict, lies, and unburied family secrets.
It can be hard to like characters who make irresponsible and unethical choices. But everyone in Luna Gale is sympathetic and genuinely wants what’s best for Luna. Peter and Karlie want nothing more than to get their baby back and care for her properly. Cindy and Pastor Jay are persuaded that they can provide Luna with a materially better life—and simultaneously save her soul. Cindy and her boss Cliff want to help as many families as possible, as well as possible, despite resource constraints. Gilman plays sleight of hand with the audience: Peter and Caroline both come across especially unfavorably in the opening scene—Peter catatonic from a drug crash, Caroline the officious voice of state authority—but they end up being the characters we’re rooting for the most.
Rebecca Gilman’s script does sidestep some of the ethical issues it raises. Caroline encourages a lie that she thinks will help achieve the best outcome for Luna, and subsequent events partially relieve her of both moral responsibility and real-world consequences. She is punished for her prejudice against religion rather than her illegal falsehood—and there’s no corresponding punishment for the characters whose pro-religious prejudices lead them astray. The story of a well-intentioned but unscrupulous former social services director who committed suicide also remains tantalizingly unexplored.
In the scope of a two-hour play, it’s impossible to tackle every issue, and Gilman’s script is an unflinching exploration of social work, family dynamics, and religion. Gilman succeeds by simultaneously taking her subject seriously and making us laugh. The humor comes not from cheap shots, but from her characters’ willingness to point out the honest absurdity of life. Social worker Caroline mis-hears the evangelical grandmother Cindy’s invocation of her “personal savior” as “personal trainer.” Peter’s stammering proposal of marriage comes framed with “I know… the institution is meaningless and we said we’d never do it.” Even the eponymous baby doesn’t escape. When Cliff is introduced to Luna’s case, he muses, “That’s a weird name—what is she, a vampire baby?”
The perfect pacing and smooth dialogue of the script are enhanced by Tom Ross’s skillful direction and an excellent cast. Jamie Jones’ Caroline struck just the right balance of deep care and overwhelmed despair. Kevin Kemp oozed charisma as the smooth-talking, awful-joke-cracking Pastor Jay, a foil to Laura Jane Bailey’s judgmental, steely Cindy. Joshua Marx’s Cliff was the epitome of a straight-laced bureaucrat, and Jennifer Vega was heartbreaking as the personable but angry teen Lourdes. As Peter, Devin S. O’Brian was an adorable young father. Alix Cuadra played his girlfriend Karlie with a self-destructive streak matched only by her love for her daughter. Cuadra’s monologue about the joy meth brought her was a tour de force, delivered with alternating bliss and desperation.
Aurora Theatre has once again delivered an entirely engrossing play. Luna Gale provokes laughter, cheers, and deep thought. It will leave you feeling bad about everything it examines—religion, foster care, drug use, relationships—but somehow hopeful for humanity nonetheless.
Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley