Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Seattle Rep presents Rebecca Gilman's “Luna Gale”

Anne Allgood and Pamela Reed in Luna Gale (Alan Alabastro)

Luna Gale
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through March 27, 2016

Playwright Rebecca Gilman is an “issues-oriented” writer. She takes on hot-button, current, modern issues and writes plays about them. Her ability to have her characters speak in real-people dialogue is terrific and admirable. That is all on display with Seattle Rep’s mounting of Luna Gale, a Gilman play about the foster-care system with all sides of the dilemma on stage.

There is much to appreciate in the staging. Pamela Reed, as Caroline – the long-time social worker who has seen so much that her instincts kick in when evidence doesn’t, is terrific in the role. Practical, worn down, but also hiding a heart of gold, Reed’s character is able to fill in all kinds of information about how the system works or doesn’t in state programs that have seen all kinds of budget cutting over the last decade.
But a foster care story on stage needs a specific family and here we meet Karlie (Hannah Mootz) and her high school boyfriend Peter (Drew Highlands) who have recently lost their daughter, Luna, by becoming meth addicts! When Caroline looks to place the child with Karlie’s mother, Cindy (Anne Allgood), Karlie becomes very upset and insists that her child would be better off with a random foster family than with her mother.

The ostensible reason is that Cindy is very Christian and Karlie says she’s afraid Cindy will want to inculcate Luna into dogmatic Christianity. And Cindy is indeed very dogmatically Christian. Act One makes us think that Caroline might be prejudiced against dogmatic, apocalyptic Christianity, and it looks like she will hatch a scheme with Karlie and Peter to help them get Luna back. Perhaps not all is quite as it seems.

But then add in Caroline’s nasty boss (Alex Matthews) who turns out to be friends with Cindy’s pastor Jay (Adrian LaTourelle) and some office politics enters in, as well. And for good measure, Caroline is potentially a bit too invested in a young woman who has “graduated” from foster care and is headed off to college, Lourdes (Pilar O’Connell).

Some of those elements put the plot into movie-of-the-week territory, as some audience members muttered during intermission. We kind of already can guess that Lourdes’ situation isn’t going to go that well, which is too bad, because it would be less cliché to have Lourdes actually beat her background, as some foster kids can and do.

Pastor Jay is quite a reasonable and fine character, here, and rescues the Christianity part of the plot from pissing a lot of Christians off at the play. Matthews’ role is not necessarily cliché, but the workplace tension doesn’t add to the rest of the story being presented.

Part of Act Two adds in another element of sexual abuse that probably credibly propels many young people, including possibly Karlie, toward drug abuse. So, its inclusion can be seen as Gilman’s effort to give a 360 degree picture of the different aspects that come into play with drug abuse, young parents, children who need to be removed from parents, and social workers placing those children.

Audience members who have not been exposed to foster care much, and maybe that includes a vast majority of Seattle Rep subscribers, will gain a great deal of useful information about the plight of children in the system, and also the plight of the overworked, stressed and undersupported social workers who have to make these very personal and life-changing evaluations about children and those who care for them.

Braden Abraham’s staging is generally well presented, especially with very quick set changes that slide out and miraculously change to slide back in, so location changes are virtually instantaneous. Michael Ganio’s design allows the play to keep moving quickly, which is crucial because sometimes the scenes do bog down. Kevin O’Donnell’s sound design is also an important scene change element that helps give the audience an auditory respite.

The cast is strong, with some of my favorite actors. They all bring as much reasonableness and earnestness of character as they can. Because they are so watchable, the evening succeeds, but later on, in reflection, I think there is a wish that Gilman might have restrained herself from adding in all those elements. If the family drama stayed more focused on the family, and deepened the conflicts, the whole play might pay off better.

Instead, it tends to fall apart when picked at just a little bit. The impression of movie-of-the-week overtakes the drama and reduces the play to more of a sermon than an immersion.

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