"Tragedy," the critic Eric Bentley once wrote, "is an experience of chaos." True. But not only is the chaotic the landscape of "Hamlet," "Othello" and the like, it also visits many of us on a daily basis. A waiter finds himself in the weeds. A reporter collapses under too many deadlines. An accountant finds herself buried. And a social worker, like the harried figure at the center of playwright Rebecca Gilman's excellent and intensely involving new drama "Luna Gale," finds herself wanting to do the best possible thing for the vulnerable children in her charge, but the kids just keep coming, one case after another, one more appointment to chase, one more open file to add to the pile, one more reason for a career-building, know-nothing boss to get in her face.
For most of us, the amount of what we have to do (and the oft-crippling context in which we have to do it) directly impacts how much we actually can do well. It is a tragedy of the modern age, I suppose.
"Luna Gale" — the title comes from the name of the baby at the center of an interfamily custody dispute — is partly a play about whether clearly damaged, maybe dangerous, birth parents should be allowed to keep their own child, whom they clearly love. For some in Illinois, this will bring to mind the famous 1995 Baby Richard custody case, once the topic of many impassioned columns in this newspaper. Gilman, whose work here is directed by her longtime collaborator Robert Falls, has added a different wrinkle to the usual debate about what level of imperfection in a birth parent means a kid is better off with loving strangers. After the authorities in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, discover that Luna's youthful, poorly educated parents (Karlie, played by Reyna de Courcy, and Peter, played by Colin Sphar) have been smoking crystal meth, they hand the baby to Karlie's divorced mother, Cindy (Jordan Baker), a committed Christian at odds with her troubled daughter and in the thrall of her pastor, Jay (Richard Thieriot). At first this all-in-the-family care option seems like an ideal solution and far preferable to pushing Luna into foster care with outsiders. But the rifts in this innocent baby's family, fueled by layers of denial and anger, run deep.
That's part of the play. But its real force — and "Luna Gale" packs quite the punch — lies predominantly in its intensely sympathetic portrayal of Caroline (Mary Beth Fisher), the social worker whose job it is to figure out Luna's fate, both temporary and permanent. That responsibility, with the life-or-death consequences that are part and parcel of the chaotic and underfunded daily world of child protective services, plays out as Caroline has other, equally demanding cases on her docket, including the need to guide a young woman named Lourdes (Melissa DuPrey) out of foster care and into an adult world for which this leave-me-alone teenager thinks she is well prepared, although Caroline has her doubts.
This kind of character, a careworn but compassionate woman of a certain age who has to constantly navigate between her gut and the actual rules, her ideals and the compromises of the real world, is very much a Gilman specialty. Fisher has brought such Gilman figures to life before, most notably in "Spinning Into Butter," wherein Fisher played a harried college dean, another woman with a demanding job faced with a complex moral conundrum. Clearly, this writer and this actress, who is doing some of the best work of her career here, are simpatico. Fisher captures Gilman's dry, sardonic sense of humor, and her gently expressed but intense disdain for some of America's more dysfunctional polarities. Fisher also (and here's the real rub) understands Gilman's way of writing these women, both powerful and impotent, who never feel as if they can let down their guard, and whose fury at the inequities of the world must play out on a very quotidian landscape.
Frankly, I've never seen Fisher create so moving a character. That's really what makes this play so out of the ordinary. We've seen the moral issues it brings up before and we've had similar debates, but theater is an art form of the personal, and this flawed woman and her agonizing conundrums are no less than haunting. One could sense the bond the audience was feeling.
Gilman and Falls also are good for each other. Falls ensures that her plays are given productions that are startling and edgy enough that they don't fall into familiar tropes: De Courcy, for example, is wholly credible as a meth addict, and Baker, who has a tough assignment, really captures the impact of very personal anger of a woman who tries to live her life by spiritual values. Falls also does not mess with Gilman: Her quiet realism grounds this restless director in a social reality. I think Falls feels a moral weight when he works with this writer, and that focuses his more extravagant impulses.
Todd Rosenthal's set design is spot-on here; the revolving set adds momentum, but none of the places to which we revolve is anywhere we would want to stay too long.
Gilman's best works, such as "The Glory of Living" and "Blue Surge," invariably have come with a deep empathy for lower-middle-class characters trying to do the right thing despite the obstacles they face, and that same compassion is very much in play here (Sphar, who plays the baby's well-meaning dad, forges another character with great warmth). This kind of workplace reality is not easy to sustain, and evangelical Christians can often be easy targets. That is avoided here, mostly, although it remains a danger. Thieriot is a big asset when it comes to avoiding cliches
There is one major moment in the play I did not buy, a decision by Caroline that becomes a revelation and plot twist that arrives at the very end of the first act and is designed to create suspense and complications to carry us through intermission. It feels like an inorganic dramatic device (the "oohs" from the audience are not worth the price in credibility) and could easily be fixed simply by more nuance, preparation and an unstinting focus on what is credible (the show has plenty of suspense already). Moreover, Erik Hellman's antagonistic Cliff, the state overseer and a type Gilman clearly despises, could use more complexity, both in what he has to say and how the actor brings him to life. It is a hard role for Hellman, and Gilman and Falls need to offer more help.
But those are minor concerns, really. The high-stakes "Luna Gale" had the Sunday night Goodman audience in its thrall. There is one scene, in which Caroline reluctantly prays with the Christians that surround her, that really is quite breathtaking. Fisher bows her head but opens her eyes wide (Falls has her downstage, staring out at the audience, although unseeing, of course). It is as if she is trying desperately to pack away both her own pain and her sense of responsibility to others in an act that puts the weight on God, rather than herself.
If you've ever tried something like that, you'll find yourself immediately grasping the pain of the semi-impotent secular rationalist, the woman who wants to believe, if only because it might make life easier or seem more logical, but who just cannot, because of the force of the logic that wells up in her throat. In that moment, which I'll treasure for a while, Fisher's Caroline becomes almost like a Beckettian figure, stuck with few chips in her stack, playing roulette with the lives of innocent American kids, unlucky in birth.
When: Through Feb. 23
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $25-$81 (subject to change) at 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun