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Chicago by John Olson

Luna Gale
Goodman Theatre


Mary Beth Fisher
Playwright Rebecca Gilman, an artistic associate at the Goodman where many of her plays have premiered, has written frequently about the complexities of male/female relationships—from the commonplace (Dollhouse, The Crowd You're In With) to the dark (Glory of Living, Boy Get Girl). With this world premiere play, she moves effectively into issue drama, taking on the topic of child welfare policy. Luna Gale is the name of an infant girl who comes to the attention of the Iowa state child and family services agency after her drugged-out teenage parents bring her dehydrated and undernourished to an emergency room. It's a given for Caroline (Mary Beth Fisher), the official assigned to the case, that Luna Gale will be taken from her parents, but the question is to where? The mother's mom Cindy (Jordan Baker), divorced and devoutly religious, is the first choice and she is first seen to be a suitable caregiver, so custody is granted to her. Caroline begins to have doubts, though, and is increasingly convinced the young parents Karlie (Reyna de Courcy) and Peter (Colin Sphar) are getting their act together and, for reasons that appear more urgent as the play progresses, will be better, safer parents than Cindy.

It's a good story—an intriguing one, as family secrets are revealed and we become invested in the fates of the 19-year-old parents. They're flawed, troubled kids, to be sure, but decent at heart and with an apparent ability to grow up. They're the first characters we see on stage—Peter so doped as to be comatose, Karlie so hyper you just want to get her off stage. As we see more of them, we get a more balanced picture. Peter's a basically good kid who's had to raise himself and Karlie is a damaged young woman trying to pull herself together. Ms. de Courcy and Mr. Sphar, under tight direction by Robert Falls that delivers the humor, tension and emotion in Gilman's script, create complex characters that can't be easily categorized. Their performances are at the heart of why this play works. You have to be on their side in order to buy Gilman's thesis that the traditional thinking of family welfare agencies is not going to be able to come up with the right solutions.

To make her case, Gilman introduces a second client—the 19-year-old Lourdes, who has just "aged out" of the system and is about to start her independent adult life as a college student. By looking at a client entering into the system as well as one leaving it, Gilman makes the point that these governmental agencies are insufficiently equipped to accomplish their mission. The usual suspects are blamed—understaffing at the agencies, made even worse by budget cuts; overloaded family courts that rely too heavily on the recommendations of overloaded case workers, and the ambitions of career bureaucrats (the one here is nicely played by Erik Hellman as slimy and over earnest).

Despite a few plot contrivances to help make her point, Gilman's script and Falls' direction deliver a realistic, sharp edged production. As always, Gilman shows her great ear for how people talk, and her attention to detail about the environments of her stories (Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in this play) further make her tales credible. Todd Rosenthal's set accurately captures the looks of sterile locations like hospitals, governmental offices and courthouses—even the Perkins family restaurant where Karlie works. He uses a turntable for cinematic fluidity between scenes that keeps the pace up.

The story is seen from the perspective of the case worker. Caroline has an excessive case load but hasn't lost her concern for her clients, and is particularly concerned about how Lourdes will do in the world. We see Caroline mostly in her professional role when dealing with clients and her boss, and this is exactly how we would see her in real life. That works against the drama of the piece to a degree. Gilman has constructed the story as Caroline's journey, but she waits until late in the play to reveal much about Caroline as a person. We know she's divorced and nearing retirement, but we never get a sense of what sort of life she may have away from work. Does she have friends, adult children, aged parents? Further, Caroline's professional demeanor requires that she try to keep her emotions in check and reveal little (although there are some outbursts). While this all works in the context of Gilman's message, I would like to have become more invested in Caroline. The fine actress Mary Beth Fisher plays Caroline as professional and tough, but it seems she could further illuminate the character by providing more subtext than I saw on opening night. She may well settle further into the character as the runs progresses.

Nonetheless, it's an involving issue play and as entertaining as a "Law and Order" episode, but with more substance. It deserves successful future lives—maybe on Broadway or a feature film and certainly in regional and university theaters.

Luna Gale will play through February 23, 2014 in the Goodman's Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. For ticket information, visit www.goodmantheatre.org, call 312-443-3800 or visit the box office.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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