Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Luna Gale is a baby born to unmarried teenage parents Karlie and Peter, who are both addicted to meth. The two met in the gifted and talented class of their high school, but since graduation Karlie has been working at a convenience store, and Peter not at all. They seem to love their baby when they think about her, but unfortunately, their drug usage creates long gaps when they do not think about her.
A medical emergency instigates the involvement of Caroline Cox, a child welfare worker a few years away from early retirement. Caroline is fiercely committed to the work of helping vulnerable children, but frustrated by inadequate services, rehab treatment waiting lists, and the shortage of foster care placements. Luna needs an out-of-home placement while Peter and Karlie connect with counselling and rehab services that may, eventually, allow them to have their baby back. Karlie's mother Cindy is eager to take Luna in, so Caroline arranges this, in spite of indications that Cindy and Karlie have been estranged. Cindy is a fundamentalist, born again Christian, whose pressure and condemnation had driven Karlie out of their home and who is now grateful to be able to prepare her granddaughter to enter God's kingdom when the "end of days" arrives. Karlie tells Caroline that she would prefer Luna be placed in a foster home, to which Caroline responds that, with the shortage of placement opportunities, Luna is likely to be in a home with nine other children, any one of whom may be a sociopath.
Caroline is the fulcrum of the conflict, with Karlie and Peter on one side and Cindy on the other. Caroline also contends with her micro-managing supervisor Cliff who suspects her of unprofessional bias against Cindy because of her strong Christian views; with the minister of Cindy's church Pastor Jay, who tries to win Caroline over by his professions of Christ's love; and with her protective feelings towards Lourdes, a client who, at 18, has aged out of the system and is headed for community college. Caroline begins to see the teenage drug-addicted parents in a more favorable light, referring to their affection for one another as "sweet." When Cliff points out that Peter has long been unemployed, Carolyn reframes the image by calling him a "stay at home dad." Gilman is masterful at using those kind of verbal frames to illustrate how different the same condition may appear, depending on how we name it.
Jodi Kellogg is perfect as Caroline. Once a frequent presence on Twin Cities' stages, Kellogg now appears only sporadically, but when she does, it is something special to see. She captures the aching blend of emotions of someone who has waged a long fight to do good in the world, battered to the point that she now will cut corners, and is even willing to cheat for what she believes is the right outcome. She hangs on to hope, but there is little left to support her optimism. In one scene Peter tells Caroline that the men's support group she sent him to is primarily a gripe session for guys to rant about what bitches their wives are, or the bitches at the unemployment office. Next, Karlie reports that her support group shows a movie one week, has a craft night the next, but no talking about their problems. Kellogg's face, trying to hold on to a belief that she can save these two kids, caves in, then she shakes it off, as if to ask herself "What did I expect?" Later, when Caroline shares a painful experience from her own childhood, Kellogg is spellbinding, seeming to be gritting her teeth to keep the truth from overpowering her. This is an exquisite performance.
Underdog Theatre founder Kory LaQuess Pullman plays Peter, finding the heart of a young man who has lost his way but is eager to get himself, his girlfriend, and his child on the right path. Pullman portrays Peter's initial anger, and then the slow change toward realizing his own power. As Karlie, Briana Patnode aptly displays the bratty behavior of a young adult trapped by the chains of self-defeating choices and living under the shadow of her mother's disdain. Megan Kelly Hubbell delivers Cindy's goodness and cheer born of her faith, but beneath the surface, her rage is also apparent, every so often bubbling up.
James Rodriguez is excellent as Cliff, Caroline's smarmy supervisor who chisels away at her autonomy, accusing her of professional malfeasance while he withholds his own part in the unraveling case of Luna Gale. Dario Tangelson exudes goodness and the true spirit of faith as Pastor Jay, so sincere in his beliefs in inherent good that he misses the dark side of those he counsels. Imani Vaughn-Jones gives a stirring performance as Lourdes, the 18 year old who has managed to flourish in spite of the failings of the social service system, yet once freed from the system finds herself challenged to become part of the larger world.
Lighting designer Emmet Kowler and sound designer Marshall Fenty both contribute to creating an intimate feel on the large Southern stage. There is no credit given to a costume designer, but the outfits Caroline wears are spot-on for a helping professional in the heartland. Leazah Behrens has done a masterful job of designing the set for Luna Gale, with two large playing areas encircled by stacks of banker boxes, boxes that are used to house the case files of thousands of clients just like Luna and Lourdes, creating a world structured by the case files of its inhabitants. Placed in one of those circles are the desk and other furnishings of Caroline's office. In the other, is a kitchen table and chairs that, with minor adjustments between scenes, is the home of Cindy and of Karlie and Peter.
Director Harris keenly uses the set to underscore points, for example, having Carolyn leave her client's home by the rear, walking the full length along rear of the stage before entering the circle that is her office, making visible both her toil and the distance between the sphere of social services and the sphere of the intended beneficiaries of those services.
Luna Gale, like most shows at the Southern, plays a short run, so catch it this weekend if you can. This is powerful, moving, theater, with things to say about subjects that make headlines and race through the lives of real, everyday people.
Luna Gale, through April 1, 2018, for Underdog Theatre as part of the ARTshare series at Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $20:00 in advance, $24.00 at the door; students and seniors: $12.00; ARTshare members free. For information on ARTshare go to southerntheater.org. For information on Underdog Theatre go to www.facebook.com/theatreforunderdogs/
Playwright: Rebecca Gilman; Director: H. Adam Harris; Set Design: Leazah Behrens; Sound Design: Marshall Fenty; Light Design: Emmet Kowler; Stage Manager: Audrey Rice
Cast: Megan Kelly Hubbell (Cindy), Jodi Kellogg (Caroline), Briana Patnode (Karlie), Kory LaQuess Pullman (Peter), James Rodriguez (Cliff), Dario Tangelson (Pastor Jay), Imani Vaughn-Jones (Lourdes).