Rebecca Gilman, the talented author of such plays as “Spinning Into Butter,” “Boy Gets Girl” and “The Glory of Living,” is known for confronting social problems head-on. Racism and white hypocrisy, stalking and sexism, degradation and immorality — the sociological issues of Gilman’s work dominated the conversation when she burst onto the scene some 14 years ago.
But just as the critic Eric Bentley cautioned us when approaching Henrik Ibsen’s plays to “look for the ideas behind the ideas,” it’s important with Gilman to examine the deeper investigation lurking behind the more topical concerns of her dramas. This is especially the case with her latest work “Luna Gale,” which is currently receiving a thoroughly absorbing and cracklingly well-acted Goodman Theatre production at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Gilman has somewhat faded from view in the national scene. This play marks a welcome return of this important American voice.
Set in present-day Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the play concerns the fate of a baby named Luna Gale, who has been taken from her young and drug-addicted parents. The opening scene takes place in the small waiting room of a hospital, where the child has been brought for emergency care.
While waiting to see Luna, Karlie (Reyna de Courcy), the baby’s 19-year-old waifish mother, flits about the room like a fly bouncing off closed windows. Karlie’s vain attempt to self-medicate herself and Peter (Colin Sphar), Luna’s semi-comatose father, with Skittles has left the floor littered with junk food and wrappers.
Caroline (a startlingly honest Mary Beth Fisher), the careworn social worker assigned to the case, takes one look at the scene and asks, “How long have the two of you been smoking meth?”
Luna is temporarily placed with Karlie’s mother, Cindy (the excellent Jordan Baker), who appears to be able to provide the baby with a stable home. Karlie, however, doesn’t want Luna to be raised by her mother, a fervent Christian more concerned with the hereafter than the here-and-now.
Caroline gets a taste of this fervor when in conversation with Cindy she mishears the words “personal savior " as “personal trainer” and starts laughing, causing an awkward silence between them. More awkward still is Cindy’s expressed desire to obtain permanent custody of Luna, something that Caroline suspects isn’t a good thing for Karlie’s recovery or the baby.
The situation is viewed primarily from the perspective of Caroline, who has only inadequate short-term solutions for a hellish long-term problem. But the play, which brings in the subject of sexual abuse, is more complicated than a custody rights drama you might stumble upon on network TV.
The plot may in fact be too complicated. Gilman’s story takes sudden shifts that don’t always seem credible in the characters’ moment-to-moment interactions. The plan Caroline devises to help Karlie and Peter win back Luna from Cindy ends the first act on a false note. And some of Caroline’s testier exchanges with her micromanaging supervisor, Cliff ( Erik Hellman), who turns out to have a relationship with Cindy’s pastor and de facto legal advisor (a very fine Richard Thieriot), seem strained.
Gilman keeps adjusting our knowledge of these individuals, which allows us to retroactively accept plot points that initially seemed bogus. But her writing, which is for the most part so careful in its realism, could be more precise in these crucial junctures in the battle for custody.
The scope of her ambition, however, is most welcome. On the surface “Luna Gale” is another grim story that could have been taken from the annals of child protective services. But beneath this narrative is a more troubling exploration of beaten up characters desperately searching for miracles, from drugs, from God and, yes, from even the Department of Human Services, where a social worker tries to heal her own wounds through helping others in distress.
Clarifying this dimension of the play is a character aptly named Lourdes (Melissa DuPrey), a former client of Caroline’s who has aged out of foster care. Hovering on the margins of the story, she is integral to its meaning, representing the hopes and disappointment of the kind of secular salvation Caroline is attempting to perform under impossible circumstances.
Caroline may call Cindy a “crazy Christian,” but the redemption that she’s pursuing may not be any more effectual than the prayers she allows the pastor to say for her in her office after a tense meeting with her boss. No side escapes Gilman’s critical scrutiny.
Anchoring director Robert Falls’ production is Fisher’s remarkable performance, which kept me alert from beginning to end out of fear of missing a single moment of this actress’ uninflected truthfulness.
The emotional resonance of Fisher’s portrayal is intensified by her restraint — by what isn’t said but simply felt and, less simply, not felt. Fisher, a deserved star at the Goodman who has collaborated with Falls on other of the playwright’s works, ensures that the ideas Gilman is engaging are embodied in a weary yet determined woman who becomes more troublingly complex the longer we get to know her.
Todd Rosenthal’s rotating set allows for the quick shift between institutional and domestic settings. This is a necessity for a play that doesn’t ever want us to get too comfortable in any one locale.
“Luna Gale,” one of this year’s most valuable additions to American drama, ultimately offers us no safe haven for our sympathies but the stroller holding a baby with all too many reasons to cry.
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays.
Ends Dec. 21
Price: $25-$55 (ticket prices subject to change)
Info: (213) 628-2772, www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes