The premiere of a new play by Rebecca Gillman is an important occasion in American theater. Unlike too many of her contemporaries, Gillman’s plays are not propaganda for one side of a social issue. Rather like George Bernard Shaw, Gillman uses issues to spark debate. Her previous plays, especially Spinning into Butter, present major social ills in unique, provocative and engaging ways. With Luna Gale, Ms. Gillman offers us a journey into the hell of the social welfare system.
In Luna Gale we are introduced to Caroline (Mary Beth Fisher), a veteran social worker, abuse victim, and wannabe alcoholic. She thinks she has a typical case on her hands when she meets Peter (Colin Sphar) and Karlie (Reyna de Courcy), two teenaged meth-addicts accused of neglecting their baby, Luna Gale. But when Caroline places the infant in the care of Karlie’s mother Cindy (Jordan Baker) we, with Caroline, begin a journey into hell.
In construction, Luna Gale resembles no play so much as David Mamet’s Oleanna. In that play, a caring professor and an eager student struggle to understand one another, only to end in charges of sexual harassment being levied against the professor. After introducing the characters as generally decent people, Mamet’s audience bonds with them. However, as more details emerge regarding the characters’ backgrounds and situations, the audience discovers them to be flawed in ways which disqualify them as champions of any factions circling the political correctness-on-college-campuses’ debate. But they are the only characters the audience has as the debate plays out. Passions overwhelm the characters as Mamet’s audience is confronted with flawed individuals trapped in a broken institution. As with the plays of Shaw, the characters’ personal traits challenge the clarity of the issues. Mamet’s agitated audience leaves the theater trying to reconcile their beliefs with what they have seen on stage.
While Mamet juggles only two characters, in Luna Gale Gillman gives herself seven. Besides Karlie, Peter, Caroline, and Cindy, we meet Cliff (Erik Hellman), Caroline’s new boss, appointed to oversee her troubled office after her late supervisor “lost some children” before committing suicide. Lourdes (Melissa DuPrey) is a “stellar” graduate of the foster care program, off to a bright future of emancipation and college. Gillman’s seventh character is Pastor Jay (Richard Thieriot), Cindy’s pastor and advocate as she navigates the state’s child protection system. Through these individuals the social institutions they represent are exposed – marriage and the family, the state’s social service system, and the church.
Like Mamet, Gillman illustrates the proposition that we do not experience any institution in general, only through particular characters. As we discover more about the individuals, our opinion of the institutions change. When we discover that Cindy may have denied her daughter’s abuse as a teenager, our opinion of Cindy changes. As we hear Caroline reveal to Karlie and Peter the date of her “surprise” home visitation, and then urge them to lie to their counselors to increase their chances of retaining custody, our opinion of social service decreases. As we watch Pastor Jay’s too close friendship with Cindy and his use of Caroline’s past abuse to sway, through prayer, Caroline’s recommendation in the forthcoming court hearing, our opinion of the church decreases. And whatever hopes remained for the welfare system fade as we see Lourdes manipulate Caroline, cut classes, and overdose.
But these are only the major plot discoveries. So many more discoveries occur that our heads spin, reminiscent of the rapid discoveries in a Feydeau farce. But each of Gillman’s discoveries expand the tragedy.
By the end of the play, all the characters have been revealed as, at best, broken. No institution seems worthy of anyone’s respect. Human love, patience, kindness and forgiveness have all been found missing in action.
Nevertheless, the all too human audience is left to wonder, discuss, and argue. If, after the first performance of Ibsen’s Doll’s House, husbands and wives rode home in silence, I suspect, that after seeing Ms. Gillman’s Luna Gale, audiences will find themselves in passionate discussions.
This is due to the magnificent production conjured up by Robert Falls. From sure casting to lovingly coaxed performances which defend each character’s integrity and point of view, Falls guarantees that Ms. Gillman’s circus act of provocation engages the audience’s hearts and minds. It has been said the best stage directing is invisible. Falls’ invisibility is glorious to behold, because it testifies to his great skill and artistry. Todd Rosenthal’s spinning grey stage scenery is a perfect metaphor for the modern world.
As to the acting, I can’t recall seeing a stronger ensemble of acting since moving to Chicago. Even the Christian characters (Cindy, Pastor Jay, and Cliff) to their actors’ and director’s credit, tend to avoid the too-frequent stereotypical portrayals.
Perhaps there is in Luna Gale something not visible in the plot discoveries. At Lourdes’ graduation Cliff calls her success a “miracle”, like her name. Luna Gale demonstrates that miracles are not part of the human repertoire. The production’s final image encourages us to look beyond the human. Robert Falls’ closing tableau evokes the icon of The Nativity. But this icon has been vandalized by the realities of our world. The tableau shows the blessed child in swaddling clothes, which, if she follows Lourdes’ path, will also become, as with Christ, her shroud. The Theotokos is missing from our modern icon. Only Joseph remains to care for the babe. The Magis’ gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh have been replaced by a garish teddy bear and a starter pack of pampers. No angel choir serenades this baby. Only Peter’s singing a personalized version of the Oklahoma fight song heralds the occasion. And like Joseph long ago, Peter is fleeing for his child’s safety, not to Egypt but to the state of Wisconsin. Upon Peter, this less-than-sold rock, does Luna Gale’s fate depend.
Rebecca Gillman and this magnificent production leave us with the only icon our society is able make of our broken, broken world. Finally, we are left to hope, or pray, like Ibsen’s Torvald Helmer for a “miracle”. Evelyn Waugh believed that “no one is ever holy without suffering.” May the suffering we have experienced lead to that. For we have just seen hell on earth.
Note: We can imagine future productions of Luna Gale casting Hispanic and African-American actors in various combinations of roles, to stir Ms. Gillman’s pot even more.