by Patrick Thomas
"We're not bad. We're stupid, but we're not bad." Unfortunately for Karlie, the character who delivers this line in Rebecca Gilman's taut and terrific Luna Gale, playing through October 1 at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company, she needs to be both not bad andsmart. At least if she ever hopes to get out of the hole she's dug for herself. Karlie (Alix Cuadra) and her boyfriend Peter (Devin S. O'Brien) are 18-year olds with an infant daughter (the titular Luna Gale) whose needs clearly come a distant second to their shared addiction to meth. As the play begins, Karlie and Peter are in a hospital waiting room where their baby is being treated for dehydration. They won't be getting her back, thanks to Caroline Cox (Jamie Jones), a seasoned—and caring—veteran case worker for Iowa's Department of Human Services.
Caroline is the polar opposite of Karlie: her choices are always wise, or at the least, prudent. In this instance, her decision to recommend Karlie's mother Cindy (Laura Jane Bailey) be given temporary custody seems easily the best option. Cindy has a good job as a nurse, access to day care, and is active in her church. But once Caroline gets to know her a little bit better, that choice seems significantly less wise. Unfortunately for Luna Gale, there are no better options.
Playwright Gilman has constructed an almost brutalist architectural edifice of a story, with human lives—innocent and not so—caught up in a bureaucracy with the entrapping qualities of quicksand. It's human instinct to care for an infant, so when Mama's tweaking on meth and Daddy's crashing, and she's offering him a handful of Skittles saying, "you need to eat," we're worried about the baby—and this hooks us into the story. A brilliant story, which takes many unexpected turns, but never lost my attention.
As jaded social worker Caroline, Jamie Jones is marvelous. She brings a business-like attitude to pretty much everything she does. Jones reveals a woman who has worked relentlessly for decades with the intention of being of help to humanity—only to come to her last years before retirement to see even her best efforts bring tragic results. It's a combination of careworn and caring that Jones wears almost regally.
The set by Kate Boyd is composed to a large extent of file boxes, prefiguring a descent down the corridors of bureaucracy. Arrayed mostly as a wall upstage, the boxes serve to remind us that the tragic (but somewhat hopeful) tale of Luna Gale is but one of thousands upon thousands of similar stories of children at risk.
Luna Gale deals with challenging subject matter, to be sure. What choice do you make when none of the options are good? But with such an engaging, thrilling production, getting yourself to the Aurora before this closes would be a wise choice indeed.
Luna Gale runs through October 1, 2017, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesdays and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $33-$65. Tickets and additional information are available at www.auroratheatre.org or by calling 510-843-4822.