Monday, January 27, 2014

Rebecca Gilman's 'Luna Gale' Provides a Compelling Look at Those Not Always Seen -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Luna Gale
a world premiere play by Rebecca Gilman
directed by Robert Falls
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Through February 23

Like many it seems, last year I became enamored by the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black.

While the show is terrific for many reasons, on several levels, what I valued most were the backstory vignettes that powerfully humanized each of female prisoners.

Similar to the recent documentary, The Interrupters, and the based-on-a-true-story feature film, Fruitvale Station (both outstanding), Orange serves as a powerful reminder that even those oft defined by pejoratives--criminal, convict, thug, gangbanger, junkie, etc.--are human beings, often surprisingly  similar to, or even more admirable than, many who may deride or simply disregard them.

As was conveyed by Robert Falls--the Goodman Theatre's artistic director and the director of its current world premiere production of Rebecca Gilman's Luna Gale--in an illuminating pre-show "Artist Encounter" conversation that also included the playwright as well as moderator Steve Edwards, Gilman's plays often give voice to the voiceless, instilling characters typically marginalized in society with a sense of dignity.

Regrettably, I have yet to see any of Gilman's most lauded works--Spinning into Butter, Boy Gets Girl, The Glory of Living, Blue Surge--and didn't much care for her adaptation of Ibsen, Dollhouse, nor the ambitiously convoluted A True History of the Johnstown Flood.

But with the Artist Encounter informing my appreciation of the social commentary and subtext of Luna Gale, I was able to not only greatly enjoy the wonderfully-acted play on Sunday night, but better understand why Falls has so often (seven times) commissioned Gilman to write plays for the Goodman to produce.

As Gilman herself explained, Luna Gale--its title being the name of the unseen 6-month-old girl at the center of the drama--is a play she worked on over a 9-year period, but which drew its inspiration from two primary sources.

One was a PBS documentary called Failure to Protect, which chronicled an incident in Maine in which a 5-year-old girl died while in the care of her foster mother, who was also a case worker for the state's Department of Human Services.

More directly--though not explicitly--tied to the action of the play was Gilman's observance of meth-addicted teen parents in an emergency room waiting area.

Gilman relayed how she initially noted the girl frenetically on the phone with her drug dealer, but was shocked when, in taking a call from someone watching her baby, the young woman gave instructions about feeding and napping with clear competence and composure.

Affected by the dichotomy between perception and reality, Gilman fostered Luna Gale's theme of "Who (and what) makes for a good parent?"

In the play, meth-addicted teen parents Karlie and Peter (wonderfully portrayed by Reyna de Courcy and Colin Sphar) have brought their baby to the ER, where their interaction with a social worker named Caroline (the always stellar Mary Beth Fisher) sets the narrative rolling.

Especially as this is a World Premiere production that is well-worth seeing, I feel it best to be quite sparse with any plot details.

All I will say is that the story involves Caroline trying to aid Karlie & Peter and determine the best course of action for Luna.

Characters also include Karlie's mother (Jordan Baker), a local pastor (Richard Thieriot), Caroline's boss (Erik Hellman) and Lourdes, a college student who until recently was a ward under Caroline's care.

In addition to drug addiction, fundamentalist Christianity plays a large part in Gilman's piece, and in addressing a query about questions of faith in Luna Gale during the Artist Encounter, the writer noted that "the characters all have a great need for something that will give them hope," be it drugs, God or something undetermined.

By no means is hearing directly from the playwright and director prior to curtain requisite for understanding, enjoying and appreciating Luna Gale.

With outstanding performances throughout but especially by de Courcy and Sphar, a brilliant rotating set design by Todd Rosenthal and keen direction by Falls, Luna Gale is more than entertaining and compelling at face value.

Though the story is dramatic, there are a number of laughs, and while perceiving how carefully Gilman tries not to overtly demonize any of her characters, there is an acute "Whose side are you on?" sense of dramatic confrontation that makes for riveting theater.

Still, I felt the only possible shortcoming of Luna Gale is in the way Gilman imbues her characterizations to the point of feeling nearly like caricatures, whether of drug addicts, fundamentalists, negligent parents, screwed-up adolescents, jerk bosses, etc.

While I gained vast respect for Gilman and the effort that goes into writing, developing, rehearsing, revising and producing a play--all done with far more depth of thought than penning this review--I can't help but suspect that her messaging (leading to, per Falls, the all important post-show conversations among viewers) might have been even more powerful if some of the characters and their actions weren't so clearly distasteful, at least to me.

To explain this further would involve plot points I won't reveal, but I would be happy to have a discussion after you see Luna Gale.

Which if you enjoy great theater, created by two of Chicago's most esteemed practitioners (and numerous gifted colleagues), you definitely should. Not least because you may well come away questioning some of your own preconceived notions.

And in an ever more polarized world, a bit greater depth perception--not to mention empathy and compassion--can only do us all some good.

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