A granular look at societal tides in ‘Luna Gale’

by Lily Janiak, September 8, 2017


It’s all well and good to pore over charts and graphs to understand our country’s domestic problems: rampant drug abuse; a gulf of understanding between the devoutly religious and the agnostic; raging poverty and the whole system of forces that conspire to keep the poor down, from exorbitant college costs to lack of job opportunities to simply not having connections, or even a single advocate, to help navigate life’s complications.

But it’s stories like Aurora Theatre Company’s “Luna Gale” that make us feel in nerve and sinew the messiness, the intractability of our society’s woes. Rebecca Gilman’s play, which had its Bay Area premiere Thursday, Sept. 7, takes a granular look at one family in which there’s no ideal home for sick infant Luna — neither with her meth-addicted teenage parents Karlie (Alix Cuadra) and Peter (Devin S. O’Brien), nor with Karlie’s unforgiving, “crazy Christian” mother Cindy (Laura Jane Bailey).

Yet no member of this riven family is all bad. Each is a fully fleshed out bundle of earnest desires and sharply defined blind spots, as are veteran social worker Caroline (Jamie Jones), her young boss Cliff (Joshua Marx) and Cindy’s pastor, Jay (Kevin Kemp). As a custody battle mounts, Gilman’s expert structuring makes you root for each character in turn — Cindy for her humility; Karlie for her wounded, spitfire energy; Peter for his dorkiness; Caroline for her down-to-business candor, her crackling wit, her objective judgments, her zeal for her work — which is especially evident in how she still checks in on an especially promising but still troubled youth, Lourdes (Jennifer Vega), who’s just aged out of the system.

Caroline doesn’t stay objective for long, though. Part of Gilman’s point is that the enforcers and administrators of our laws are as biased and imperfect as those whom the laws govern and protect. Gilman contrives to get there, though, requiring Caroline to repeatedly breach professional decorum and ethics (sometimes it’s just an emotional outburst; sometimes it’s telling a lie) without justifying why it’s this case, in her 25 years on the job, that suddenly makes her risk everything.

Tom Ross’ direction, which never lets tension abate as the play delves into excruciating accounts of abuse, makes up for most of the improbabilities, as do rich performances from his cast. Cuadra’s Karlie will likely haunt anyone who was a brat in adolescence, the way she’s so eager to perform her boredom, the way she expects to dazzle you with a dismissive joke. Jones’ Caroline scarcely seems to breathe, so tireless is she in her work, and she has a glorious way with silent reactions to the dumbfounding assertions from everyone around her — her expression cracks like ice in an effort to maintain composure yet simultaneously relish some billowing inner tirade.

The strongest part of “Luna Gale,” taut as its arguments are, is when the show stops feeling like a fight for parental rights and more like a grand lament for everyone onstage, for a woefully inadequate system that, perhaps no matter how we designed it, might still never find the right balance of justice and mercy for everyone involved. To see this play is to remember that our laws and policies are not some abstract, external force that magically make sweeping societal change, but hard, concrete, glitchy realities, as important as biology in building adults or knocking them down.

Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. Email: ljaniak@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @LilyJaniak

POLITE APPLAUSELuna Gale: Written by Rebecca Gilman. Directed by Tom Ross. Through Oct. 1. Two hours. $33-$65. Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. (510) 843-4822. www.auroratheatre.org


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