by Adam Brinklow, September 11, 2017
When old King Solomon had to decide a custody battle, he first suggested cutting the baby in half and dividing it between the parties.
Not a great Plan A, by any means. But about midway through playwright Rebecca Gilman's "Luna Gale," you start to weigh its pros and cons. If nothing else, at least that solution's over and done in a single hearing.
Yes, "Luna Gale" concerns the question of to whom the titular baby should belong. It's weird to consider an infant something to be haggled over, like possession of a football. But for tireless social worker Caroline (an incredibly sharp and perceptive Jamie Jones, previously from Aurora's "Mud Blue Sky") it's another day at the office.
Both of little Luna's parents are drug addicts, her mother Karlie fiercely intelligent but seething with anger (Alix Cuadra, who is almost too nimble and pointed a performer for the show to keep up with), her father overwhelmingly adoring but possibly too vulnerable on his own to serve for a parent.
(That's Devin S O'Brien, also from "Mud Blue Sky," here appearing more confident and grounded as an actor than we've ever seen him before.)
There's something a touch contrived about the couple's dilemma when Caroline yanks their custody. They've only been on drugs for a few weeks but managed to let their apartment lapse into a meth den just that fast.
This feels like an artificial push to get the story rolling; the play needs parents JUST methed up enough to get into this mess but not enough that we write them off as a lost cause from square one.
But Luna's hovering grandmother (Laura Jane Bailey, our third "Mud Blue Sky" alum) is ready to swoop in and adopt at half a moment's notice, so it should all look like an open and shut case.
That wouldn't be much of a play, though, and Caroline thinks maybe Mom can get her act together after all. Perhaps because, in spite of how unlikely it seems, she and Karlie seem to operate on a lot of the same wavelengths, both piercing and aggressive with their thoughts and both used to being the most perceptive person in a room.
Cuadra and Jones sparkle when the show lets them talk, and in a just world they'd have twice as many scenes together.
Grandma might also just a little bit off in the head, talking in awed tones about the coming apocalypse and palling around with a preacher who could be either the second coming of Mr. Rogers or a secret serial killer. (Bay Area newcomer Kevin Kemp, channeling every white-collared Mormon elder who ever showed up on your doorstep.)
Oddly, "Luna Gale" plays out like a murder mystery. Nobody's been killed, but there is a prickly problem, a list of suspects, and the assumption that a solution will present itself soon, even though we can't imagine what it is.
Admittedly this conflict is pretty forced, each potential parent's merits and flaws seeming less like organic developments and more like something Gilman hammered together for a specific purpose, like scrap art.
But with smart actors and a director (Tom Ross) who understands the roles, it's almost impossible not to become fretfully invested in what the outcome will be. After all, few conflicts seem more pressing than the pending fate of a baby.
Set designer Kate Boyd (who did lighting on the shockingly good "Love Sick" earlier this year) created a pleasingly worn and sterile looking set of white filing boxes and missing panels, a grim assessment of institutional inadequacy.
In every one of those boxes, we can imagine human lives parceled out into paperwork and left to serve no particular end except adding to a pile. Yes, "Luna Gale" has opinions about the way the law deals with imperiled children; mostly that it's a crap system and everyone should be angry about it.
In the context of a story, we always care what happens to the kids. But in life, it seems we're mostly interested in not finding out.
"Luna Gale" runs through October 1 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St. in Berkeley. For tickets and information, call 510-843-4822 or visit AuroraTheatre.org