by Eddie Reynolds, September 12, 2017
On any given day in the U.S., over 400,000 kids are living in foster care environments, with at least a quarter of those placed by the courts with blood relatives in what is classified as kinship care. Social workers are assigned to each of those children to ensure where they live is safe, with whom they live is a proper fit. Caroline is one such social worker. Caroline currently has ninety active cases. For each of the ninety, Caroline must investigate the possible caregiver, visit frequently the living situations, see the child interacting with the caregiver, determine what the parents must do to ready themselves for once again being a full-time parent, and ultimately recommend to the court when and if the real parents can once again see (much less assume parenting) their child.
Luna Gale is a newborn, just one of Caroline’s ninety cases. Her late-teen parents are on meth. Luna Gale is underweight and sick. Her Grandmother wants to take over her care.
Thus opens Rebecca Gilman’s gripping play, Luna Gale, now receiving its Bay Area premiere at Aurora Theatre Company. Complications and mysteries multiply as Caroline digs into this one case; and the Aurora production soars with a director, cast, and creative team who ensure the audience will never again forget the heart-breaking situations, the moral dilemmas, and the near-impossible tasks that thousands of social workers like Caroline face every day, 365 days a year.
Jamie Jones is quick to establish her Caroline as always efficient and effective. She enters the hospital’s emergency waiting room with an air of an investigator, plummeting the two meth-high kids (also parents of Luna Gale) with multiple questions, picking up on any detail reluctantly offered and going for the jugular with yet another question or even a blunt opinion/conclusion.
It is not that she is uncaring. It is just that she is serious about protecting the unseen baby who has been ignored for some number of hours/days before being rushed to the hospital by the doped-out parents. And she needs to -- no she must come to a conclusion quickly what happens to this baby. She assesses this baby must be placed in some sort of foster situation out of the parents’ reach (at least for now), and she has decided that in a matter of ten minutes because she has many more cases to attend to before day’s end (which is probably late tonight).
With a façade of objectivity that is not totally unfeeling but more Solomon-like in its quick assessing and judging nature, Ms. Jones is pinpoint perfection in her portrayal of Caroline. At the same time, situations (her own and those of this case) will complicate and muddy the waters. As the days of the play’s story tick by, Ms. Jones will show an incredible range of emotions ranging from anger to anguish, caring to critical, pride to prejudice. Throughout, she will enlighten the audience in ways few of us probably had clues at the play’s beginning about how the life of a social worker borders each day between a job doing God’s work and a job for a person condemned to hell. In the end, Jamie Jones as Caroline is a social worker who will not be soon forgotten by any in the audience.
Alix Cuadra and Devin S. O’Brien are Luna Gale’s parents, Karlie and Peter. Ms. Cuadra’s Karlie is a mom who clearly is not ready to be one. The pull that meth has on her is strong; and its effects are seen in her hollow-looking stares, her tense body, and her half-spoken answers. There are sparks of love and caring that suddenly emerge in her countenance for the baby she cannot presently have in her sole possession; but those brief sparks can fade quickly as angry reactions erupt when questions go places she does not them want to go.
As Peter, Devin S. O’Brien begins as a slouched-over, non-responsive, do-nothing dad in the hospital waiting room who would rather sleep off his high than answer Caroline’s questions. A week or so later, he emerges as a young guy eager to please the social worker, even as he shakes his foot uncontrollably, bites his non-existing nails, and scratches almost-to-bring-blood his neck. He is a kid now crashing and trying to stay off meth for good. The fully credible, heart-touching performance that Mr. O’Brien gives as a young dad who really does want that baby back is one of the most stellar among many strong performances of the evening.
As probably true for any of the thousands during Caroline’s long career as a social worker, there is nothing simple about this one case of Luna Gale. Caroline is after all only human and can hardly be blamed for mishearing Luna’s grandmother, Cindy. She really did not mean to laugh when she heard Cindy say that she had twelve years ago accepted Jesus as her “personal trainer” (instead of “personal savior”).
Laura Jane Bailey is superb as the evangelical-leaning Grandmother who is pushing to be the baby’s permanent foster parent. A major dilemma for Caroline is that the big smiling Cindy is one moment sweet, accommodating, and apparently capable of being a wonderful caregiver and the next moment, off on a frenzied tirade rattling that “the end days are upon us” and claiming if Luna lives with her daughter Karlie, “she’ll never be saved.” Ms. Bailey is just getting her Cindy into first gear for what will be a full-blown battle to win possession of her granddaughter.
The complications for Caroline only mount. Kevin Kemp is the soft-spoken, enticing-with-kind-words Pastor James who allies himself with Cindy to convince Caroline to recommend the grandmother for permanent parenting of Luna Gale. His handsome demeanor and genuine-enough smile (or is it?) are deliciously intriguing as we and Caroline try to figure out him and his real motives.
And why does Caroline’s much-younger-than-she boss, Cliff, appear to be best buds with the Pastor as the two now stand in her office? Cliff is a boy-manager who seems to have it in for Caroline and is all over this one particular case for some reason. Why is that? Joshua Marx adds mystery and intrigue to this ever-more-complicated case; and his portrayal as the straight-and-narrow, by-the-books boss is disturbing and delightful at the same time.
Rounding out the exceptional cast is Jennifer Vega as Lourdes, a recent “graduate” of the foster-child program whom Caroline has developed a special relationship through the years. She is who Caroline hopes all her Luna Gales will some day become. But as appreciative as Lourdes is of all that Caroline has done and still is doing for her as she heads to community college, there is something unsaid in those sad eyes that keep diverting to the ground as her answers are more and more vague to Caroline’s questions.
The overload of all the Caroline’s of the foster care world is illustrated vividly in the scenic design of Kate Boyd. Labeled boxes that surely contain thousands of pages of case notes and court pronouncements are the bricks of Caroline’s office walls and are even the foundation on which the raised stage sits. The costumes of Callie Floor clearly highlight the personal characteristics of each person -- from the uptight-upstart of a boss Cliff to the too-pleasant-to-be-believed Pastor James to the organized-to-a-‘t’ Caroline.
The lighting of Kurt Landisman plays a major role in the production’s storytelling as four-cornered outlines appears as stark shadows on the floor and walls, giving the distinct flavor that Caroline is feeling more and more boxed in and trapped by the cases that fill her day. Spots zoom in to at just the right moment to put individuals into the witness box or to remind us that the baby is what this whole story is really about at its core. Kudos goes to Mr. Landisman for one of the best lighting designs of this theatrical season.
Under the flawless direction of Tom Ross, this cast grabs the audience and never lets us go until the final, silent moment where the fate of Luna Gale finally becomes clear. Aurora Theatre Company has hit a homerun in presenting Rebecca Gilman’s timely and important play. Luna Galeteaches more than entertains, leaving us with a new-found empathy for the complicated, over-loaded role of a social worker in today’s foster childcare universe. Even more, Luna Gale reminds us that at the heart of every one of those ninety cases is a precious child just wanting to be loved in a safe, caring home.
Rating: 5 E
Luna Gale continues through October 1, 2017 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2018 Addison Street, Berkeley. Tickets are available online at https://auroratheatre.org/ or by calling the box office at 510-843-4822.