Arts & Theater

No easy answers in Capital Stage’s unsettling custody drama ‘Luna Gale’

From left to right: Amy Resnick, Lauren Hirsch and Ian Hopps in “Luna Gale” at Capital Stage.
From left to right: Amy Resnick, Lauren Hirsch and Ian Hopps in “Luna Gale” at Capital Stage. Charr Crail

When we first meet teenage meth addicts Karlie and Peter in a hospital waiting room in Capital Stage’s new production of “Luna Gale,” they are far from sympathetic characters.

The couple have just rushed their struggling baby girl, Luna Gale, to the emergency room at a hospital in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In addition to the drugs, Karlie is spun out on fear, anger and a diet that consists largely of cheesecake, Skittles, Starbursts and SweeTarts. Peter is in a stupor, slumped over in his chair. Karlie does not know what day it is, how many days Luna has been sick or why she is so dehydrated.

Unfortunately, this staging of “Luna Gale” struggles along with its namesake. The modern-day storyline contains many powerful elements: drug addiction, evangelical Christianity, a fight for a baby’s custody, an overburdened social service system and, perhaps most importantly, hope. But in the end, the production falls short in capitalizing on the passion and emotion inherent in the award-winning script.

Director Michael Stevenson appears to have taken a minimalist approach to staging this unsettling drama, a decision that ostensibly allows audiences to focus more on the blunt and at times profane dialogue in the plot-heavy play. But stage movement is either staccato or static, with actors generating little energy beyond that contained in playwright Rebecca Gilman’s spoken words.

The set, an inelegant clash of surrealism and realism, does not help Stevenson’s cause. Painted on the back wall are two giant, looming eyes that stare back at the audience for two hours. Why are they there? To whom do they belong? Are they baby Luna’s eyes, watching the words and actions of those deciding her fate? The device seems at odds with dialogue that’s so grounded in reality, as well as with the otherwise bland bureaucratic settings.

That same back wall is lined with more than a dozen file cabinets and stacks of file boxes, presumably to demonstrate the crushing workload of caseworkers such as the one trying to help Karlie, Peter and baby Luna. Social worker Caroline is at the center of this drama, the referee who must decide who is more suitable as a permanent guardian – the young troubled parents or the born-again Christian grandparent – to raise Luna.

Amy Resnick plays Caroline, the stressed-out, overworked civil servant whose heart and empathy are in the right place even if her words sometimes contradict those feelings. “I love children,” her character says. “That’s why I never had them.” An otherwise compelling performer, Resnick stumbled over her lines a few times at a recent performance, a costly distraction for such a pivotal character.

As Caroline works through her decision, her process is a vehicle to cast religious zealotry, drug addiction and sexual abuse as equal and threatening social menaces. At the same time, it shines a light on our nation’s social services system, where humans with biases and massive caseloads are called upon every day to make Solomon-like decisions.

To be sure, Caroline’s challenge is formidable: In one corner are the two young meth addicts whose love for the high might be more powerful than their love for Luna – or even for each other. Karlie (Lauren Hirsch) and Peter (Ian Hopps) both send messages early on that they are willing to change their lives, but can they stay clean?

In the other corner are Karlie’s mother, Cindy, and Cindy’s religious and legal adviser, Pastor Jay. Are these two more interested in saving Luna from her parents or in making the infant a lamb in Christ’s flock?

And how does Caroline’s own past inform her decision? “I think that Cindy loves Jesus more than she loves her daughter,” she says at one point. “In the same way that my mother loved Scotch more than she loved me.”

Shannon Mahoney is strong as Cindy, who has all but given up on her daughter but will stop at nothing to “save” her granddaughter. Peter Story is slick and relentless as Pastor Jay, as he seems equally confident arguing scripture or statute.

Guided by hope and good intentions, Caroline makes her choice, but Gilman’s universe is not a place of easy answers or resolution, a fate portended by a minor character named Lourdes (Jezebel Olivares), a young woman who has aged out of foster care and struggles being out on her own.

Capital Stage deserves credit for presenting the Sacramento premiere of this important and timely play, winner of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award. But ultimately, this production, while ambitious, did not match the promise of the script.

Luna Gale

1/2

What: Rebecca Gilman’s drama tells the story of a complicated custody battle over a baby girl. Directed by Michael Stevenson.

Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento

When: 2 p.m. Wednesdays; 7 p.m Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Sunday, Nov. 19.

Cost: $28-$40; discounts for student rush, seniors, military personnel and groups

Information: 916-995-5464 or capstage.org

Running time: Two hours, including one intermission

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