There sometimes comes a moment in a play when an audience starts to wonder what exactly it is supposed to be about, even if – or especially if – it seems, on the surface, to be obvious. In Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale, this moment arrives at just over the half way point, when everything seems to reveal itself. In terms of plot, the play is fairly transparent: overworked US social worker Caroline (Sharon Small) is at the centre of a tug of war between drug addict Karlie (Rachel Bedford) and her “crazy Christian” mother Cindy (Caroline Faber) as they battle it out to claim the right to look after neglected Luna, Karlie’s baby.
Add the gross inadequacy and inability of America’s unequal drug rehab programs to address Karlie’s issues and get her (along with her partner Peter (Alexander Arnold)) back on track, workload pressures and new young supervisor Cliff (Ed Hughes), who blames Caroline for her previous boss’s ineptitude and the consequent “disappeared” in America’s over burdened welfare system as a result, and we think we are in for an issue-based play: indeed, we do get one, with all its appropriate author-led devices to push concept rather than character.
And certainly, Lucy Osborne’s staging, with its revolve and semi circular amphitheatre made up of 100s of case files, with its oversized doorways leading off into dark chasmic tunnels, gives weight to the idea that everyone is on a never-ending, rotating treadmill of episodic bureaucracy that they cannot get off. And those case book files look like they are just waiting to fall from their larger than life shelves onto the hapless Caroline, even as she collapses under the “floods” of neglected and abused children that “just won’t stop coming.”
It is even possible to see that this play is actually all about Caroline, and bases itself on the truism that, in order to expunge something from our internal self and allow a wound to heal, we relive it again and again, until we can free ourselves from the suffocating quicksands of karma.
And obviously of course, there is a baby that is at the heart of this story: who controls and owns her, who has a say in her future, the viability and appropriateness of kinship care and to what lengths should she (if at all) be protected from those less responsible in her family and who gets to decide this. Within in all this, Gilman can explore Caroline’s complex inner life and moral values, and how far she is prepared to go in order to protect those values in relation to herself.
But what’s interesting here is the illustration we get of the perfunctoriness of life. It links in with Osborne’s set and the language and the almost sitcom-style performances of the actors playing Pastor Jay (Corey Johnson) Cindy’s counsellor, Cliff, Cindy and to a certain extent, Caroline herself. The language is a strange mix of institutionalised rhetoric and religious imagery (even non believing Caroline uses it at times) which disassociates all of them from Karlie and Peter and Caroline’s other graduated foster care children. It further allows Rebecca Gilman to explore Caroline’s (and others’) false assumptions about the disenfranchised, and of Peter in particular, who obviously has the moral upper hand by the play’s end.
None of the adults, free from drugs as they might be, can unlock themselves from the chains that their own belief systems hold them in, and this is part of, though not all, the problem. Cindy inhibits Karlie’s ability to develop and mature by believing, in order to prop up her own existence and beliefs, that she will always be a failure of some sort, someone who cannot find the right path to Jesus. Cliff similarly, is blinded by Caroline’s scornful anti Christian remarks, and allows that to determine his judgments of her. Pastor Jay suffers from an innocence one feels he has acquired by matter of rote and because he ought to, rather than because experience has taught him. Caroline herself is determined to manipulate facts for her own means, so that it is not totally possible to believe her truth.
It seems that the only ones who know the system is broken, who stand outside it with unblinkered eyes, are Karlie and Peter themselves: unfettered by religion, politics or a set of moral recommendations for conduct, they act according to the only thing that holds them together: love, a love which through necessity, must be sacrificial . Of course, the thing is, America’s small state welfare system shouldn’t let things get to this point in the first place.