Well. . . I needed that.
Ensemble Theatre has begun their 30th season with a sure-fire hit that touches many nerves, pushes lots of buttons, and will likely produce a few tears. I know it did all of the above for me.
LUNA GALE is the story of a veteran social worker named “Caroline” (Annie Fitzpatrick) who encounters two teenagers, Peter and Carly (Patrick Phillips and Molly Israel), with a baby named Luna Gale. Caroline has to remove the child and places her with the maternal grandmother, Cindy, (Kate Wilford) but soon questions whether or not this was a mistake. Her boss (Brent Vimtrup) and Cindy’s pastor (Charlie Clark) get involved. Meanwhile Caroline has an interesting relationship with a client who recently aged out of the system (Natalie Joyce).
I don’t want to give anything away because the details of these characters lives reveal themselves throughout the play and part of what makes Rebecca Gilman’s script so powerful is the way she tells their stories. I can tell you, though, that this play touched me in ways that no other has in quite some time.
Full disclosure: I am a professional counselor who works in a community mental health agency. I grew up in a Conservative Christian household and am Bible college educated. I grew up in rural Central Ohio, much like the Iowa where this story takes place. And I too am from a family with similar secrets to those of Cindy and Carly’s.
This story is as real as any I’ve seen.
From the miraculous turn-table set by Brian C. Mehring to the realities of child protection and the limits of social services to the religious themes, there’s something here for everyone to relate to – or to learn from.
I really wonder if the playwright has been spying on me. The kitchen cabinets in Cindy’s home are the same as the ones in the house I grew up in; same wood, same style, same everything. The room where supervised visitation happens has some of the same ancient toys, the same primary colored shelving and decor, and the same feel as many of the rooms in places I’ve worked throughout my career. Watching this show was extraordinarly personal for me.
And the actors all embody people I know. Real people.
It would be easy to play this one over-the-top; the opportunities for melodrama and caricatures are many. But director D. Lynn Meyers is at her best with these contemporary real-world dramas. Her gentle touches are present throughout the show. Knowing glances, subtle and purposeful choices in how certain lines are said (even some that others might overlook or ignore as “throwaways”), and an overall sense of time, place, and person bring this show together perfectly. She truly is one of the region’s premier directors.
And this cast ain’t too shabby either. Fitzpatrick is at her every-woman best, wearing the battle scars of a too-long career in a high burn-out field like a badge of honor. You can see the weight of the world in her matter-of-fact-ness; but you can also see her longing to shed the loneliness her life has brought her. I have never thought of her as an overly physical performer, necessarily, but everything clicks here. She’s a treasure.
Patrick Phillips has virtually grown up on stage in Cincinnati but he’s never been better than he is playing Peter, with all his complexities. Phillips is a smart enough actor to know how to show Peter’s emotional baggage while also embodying his above-average intellect. This is the most multidimensional character in the play and perhaps the most difficult to bring to life but Phillips’ training at Xavier, his internship last year at ETC, and his long history on stage has brought him to this – his breakout performance. I hope he continues to find work locally so we don’t lose him to the bright lights and big city too soon.
Molly Israel (“Carly”) gives a star-making performance herself. I say that because I’ve seen her on stage before and I’ve met her and we’re even FaceBook friends and yet I didn’t recognize her in the first scene. I even checked the program to make sure it was her. I don’t know where she did her research (it could have been in the lobby of any number of ERs or social service agencies) but her posture, her impatience, her guardedness, and her hurt – all of it resonates with authenticity. She’s fantastic.
I thanked Kate Wilford after the show but couldn’t really put into words what I was thanking her for. Often times when religion is portrayed on stage its done in a way that mocks the most devoted of Christians. Wilford, though, plays the part with respect. She shows a level of empathy for this mother that makes folks like me who live in far apart worlds (a socially conscious liberal theatre community and a Bible believing conservative Christian world) relax in our seats a little. If there’s a better actress in town that can convey slow, emotional realization and denial at the same time (without speaking a word, mind you) I would like you to introduce me to her.
Natalie Joyce plays her part extremely well; while not a huge role she is pivotal in helping show Caroline’s flaws and motivations. Charlie Clark is so natural on stage that even his somewhat smarmy but well-meaning pastor works well. And Vimtrup, who’s “Cliff” is an ambitious bureaucrat, somehow manages to find the heart and good intentions buried inside a man who’s more complicated than he first seems.
So, yes, the acting is superb. As is the entire production.
I think every adult in Cincinnati should see this play. We must be aware of the realities of our social service systems in order to begin to fix them. This play is eye-opening and unsettling. But it’s also a well-crafted, moving, and yes – a hopeful piece of theatre.
I will tell you, though, that it’s not an easy one to sit through. If you have an aversion to frank discussions of trauma, drug abuse, sex, or other mature themes, you may want to sit it out. But if you can handle all of that, you need to see LUNA GALE. It was cathartic for me. I’m probably gonna go back again.
LUNA GALE runs through September 27th at Ensemble Theatre in Over-the-Rhine. Tickets and more information can be found here.