The title character of “Luna Gale” is never visible.
In the few moments when she is onstage during this Goodman Theatre production, Luna is quietly hidden away inside a baby carriage. And yet, as invisible as she may seem to the audience, the infant named Luna Gale is the force driving most of the adult characters in Chicago playwright Rebecca Gilman’s thoughtful, emotionally stirring drama.
Her young parents are trying to kick their meth habit and get their lives together so that they can regain custody of their little girl. (Reyna de Courcy and Colin Sphar play this couple with jittery authenticity, empathy and a touch of humor—yes, it is possible to laugh at moments during such dire situations.) Luna’s grandmother, an evangelical Christian who believes the end of the world is nigh, wants to raise Luna on her own. (Jordan Baker vividly plays the grandmother as well intentioned but slightly unhinged.)
The woman trying to sort out this knotty mess is a state government social worker named Caroline—and she’s the real star of this play, a complex heroine brought to life in a terrific performance by the stalwart Chicago actress Mary Beth Fisher, who has starred in previous Gilman dramas. In the opening scenes, Caroline comes off as something of a tough cookie, talking in a dry, sarcastic tone as she interviews the relatives of this endangered infant girl. As the story progresses, she takes ethical shortcuts, using an “ends justify the means” approach. Clearly, she’s seen a lot of terrible family situations during her career, giving her a somewhat cynical outlook. But as Fisher opens up her character’s emotions over the course of “Luna Gale,” she shows that Caroline remains dedicated to her core mission of saving children from fates that they don’t deserve.
Along the way, Caroline also deals with an overbearing supervisor (Erik Hellman), an insistent pastor (Richard Thieriot), accusations of anti-Christian bias, and a young woman who has just “graduated” out of state supervision (Melissa Duprey).
Deftly directed by the Goodman’s artistic director, longtime Gilman collaborator Robert Falls, “Luna Gale” isn’t flawless—one subplot’s tragic turn hits with a glancing blow rather than the full force it deserves—but it’s a very strong piece of work. A sense of dread hangs over the play, the feeling that this drama could turn into one of those horrifying, sad news stories about child welfare cases, but “Luna Gale” ultimately finds hope for its title character and the flawed adults surrounding that baby carriage.
“Luna Gale” continues through February 23 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago. Call 312-443-3800 or visit Goodman’s website for tickets and schedule.