Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale (2014) shows off Ensemble's strengths in a heady start for this season. Gilman’s script premiered at the Goodman last year in Chicago and played in London at the Royal Court. Lynn Meyers has been able to stage this ahead of regional productions by other major companies (Actors Theatre of Louisville, The Cleveland Playhouse), which keeps Cincinnati on the cutting edge of contemporary drama.
|Molly Israel, Patrick E. Phillips with Annie Fitzpatrick*|
Luna Gale presents the situation of meth addict teenage parents having their infant daughter taken from them. Various complications occur and I don’t want to give any of them away because the greatest enjoyment for an audience of this type of play is to know as little as possible. That’s because it’s a melodrama – I could call it a situation drama – and Gilman builds suspense through surprise and the introduction of various socio-political hot topic issues. These include: the under funded, understaffed yet overflowing foster care system; the meth epidemic that’s becoming the heroin epidemic; the growing number of grandparents as children’s primary caregivers; personal values versus professional obligations; the influence of evangelical Christianity on governmental institutions; the devaluation of experienced professionals in the workplace by new supervisors. That list is not exhaustive.
Annie Fitzpatrick gives a master class in subtle, naturalistic acting as the social worker Caroline. She projects intelligence, decency, and wit yet doesn’t refrain from the unappealing aspects of this essentially good woman. As we were leaving, I overheard young audience members say they thought Fitzpatrick was incredible and they were right. Patrick E. Phillips uses his whole body to express the young father who develops a sensibility as the play progresses. He’s frightening and hilarious in the opening scene where he’s unconscious, but physically creating the role. His final moments are also funny and poignant. I hope he’s back at Ensemble soon. Both Molly Israel as the young mother and Natalie Joyce as a former client that aged out of the system seem like teenagers you’d see shopping at Wal-Mart or working at a chain family restaurant and wonder what’s going on in their lives. You might not think broken families, drugs or custody battles immediately.
While the other cast members get their parts across, they weren’t as adept because of miscasting, which they didn’t overcome. Brent Vimtrup plays Caroline’s supervisor Cliff as if he might enroll in reparative therapy; there was something desperate about his interpretation that wasn’t in the script. Charlie Clark’s Pastor Jay seemed like a nice teddy bear kind of guy. I didn’t see how he’d inspire followers. I’d like to have seen the two actors exchange roles. Kate Wilford, usually a strong performer, didn’t project the grandmother Cindy’s high stakes in the central conflict. Wilford has a mature, sensible presence that did not work for this character and she didn’t make acting choices to undercut or go against her physicality. Ensemble regular Sara Mackie was in the audience and Neil and I wish she’d played the part because her sweetness and naïveté would have been heartbreaking and more fully have justified the daughter’s rage, rather than Wilford’s bland interpretation.
|The Nursery at Childrens' Services*|
Meyers teases every nuance she can from this script, starting in her collaboration with designer Brian c. Mehring. He answers the multiple settings challenge with a lazy Susan revolving stage, focusing on a palette of institutional gray, some black, and some splashes of color. We’ve all seen that hospital waiting room, the public servant’s office, and even the grandmother’s kitchen. That generic, homey yet sterile room gave me pause about the character even before the scene began. It’s a bias of mine (and Gilman’s work is all about the complex role bias plays in relationships) that someone without taste – even bad taste – and imagination will be a lesser guardian than someone possessing either or both.
Luna Gale runs through September 27, 2015
*Photos from ETC website