This thorny American play about protecting children makes its Australian debut at Ensemble Theatre
The synopsis of Rebecca Gilman’s 2014 play Luna Gale doesn’t exactly fill you with hope for a buoyant night of theatre.
It concerns a social worker called Caroline (Georgie Parker), tasked with finding an appropriate home for a neglected baby girl called Luna Gale, whose 19-year-old parents, Karlie (Lucy Heffernan) and Peter (Jacob Warner), are struggling with an addiction to crystal meth. Karlie’s mother, Cindy (Michelle Doake), wants to be in control over the baby’s future, but Caroline doesn’t exactly trust this woman, whose religious fervour seems to have blinded her to the realities of the world. Caroline has a clear priority – to reunite the young family and keep Luna safe from her grandmother – but she comes under unexpected bureaucratic pressure to remove the baby permanently from her parents.
It’s surprising just how compelling this grim narrative is, and just how much you can become invested in Luna’s fate. Of course, you never see a baby on stage, but Gilman has written Caroline with so much flesh and blood, and such an extraordinary drive to set things right in the world, that the dilemmas at the core of the play are utterly engrossing.
It’s very much an “issues play” – about how we raise children, how we take societal responsibility for them, how they’re shaped by those decisions, how religious institutions fail their followers, and how governments fail to adequately provide a safety net – but it’s also a finely drawn drama. Not every character is drawn with the nuance of Caroline, but the world of hospitals, social services and low-income housing feels real, in large part due to Simone Romaniuk’s smart, utilitarian set design.
Unfortunately not everything in director Susanna Dowling’s production is grounded with quite the same sense of realism. The performances all come from a place of truth, but there’s a pervading staginess to the acting style that doesn’t always sit entirely comfortably with Gilman’s text. It seems Dowling may have been worried things would seem too grim, and didn’t quite trust that audiences would stay on the ride without leaning into melodrama and humour.
This approach still largely works, but it can undercut the impact of what happens in Gilman’s play; how every female character on stage has been compromised in some way, and how they respond when backed into a corner.
There’s one particular scene where Caroline finds herself in such a situation – forced to participate in a shallow and invasive prayer session over one of her darkest moments – where you glimpse just how powerful this play could be.
Georgie Parker is absolutely heart-wrenching in this scene, and you can see in every moment just how successfully she’s found her way under the skin of the doggedly determined character. There’s also strong work from Lucy Heffernan and Jacob Warner, making the most of characters mostly written from stereotype, and Michelle Doake as the ferociously religious Cindy. But none of these actors is quite given the space to breathe and explore the full depth and nuance of the text.
Despite that untapped potential, it still manages to be a satisfying and captivating piece of theatre, and a great choice of material for Ensemble.
It could just be significantly more thought-provoking if this production allowed uncomfortable silences and thorny confrontations to hang without quick and easy resolutions. Because there are certainly no quick and easy resolutions for the characters on stage.