There is a moment in CoHo’s astounding new production of Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale when a mother learns a stomach-churning secret about her daughter. Yet she doesn’t scream, shake her first or exclaim that it can’t be true. She simply freezes as still as a photograph.
That is what it feels like watching Luna Gale. Gilman’s story of a brutal custody battle in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, may not be soothing, but in the hands of director Brandon Woolley and his ferociously committed cast, it is spellbinding. Together, they embrace not only Luna Gale‘s power to provoke, but also the fact that it is entertainment in the best and brashest sense of the word—a roller coaster of a play packed with twists that could have made a Sixth Sense-era M. Night Shyamalan howl, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
The first hairpin narrative turn arrives in the opening scene, where we meet a young couple, Karlie and Peter (Shannon Mastel and Jacob Camp). With her black nail polish, ripped jeans and James Dean-style bellowing, Karlie looks like a teenager fuming in the principal’s office. However, we quickly learn that she and Peter are immersed in all-too-adult crises. Not only are they meth addicts, but they are also in danger of losing their baby daughter Luna to Karlie’s mother, Cindy (Danielle Weathers, who also co-produced the show), an evangelical Christian who hides her vindictive spirit behind touchy-feely declarations like “The thing about Jesus is that he always gets results.”
If Luna Gale were merely a courtroom clash between Karlie and Cindy, it would have fallen into the tired story rhythms of Kramer vs. Kramer. Yet not only is there not a single lawyer or cry of “Objection!” in the play, but neither Karlie nor Cindy is the protagonist. That title belongs to Caroline (Sharonlee McLean, a force of unearthly brilliance), the social worker tasked with choosing whether Luna belongs with the irresponsible but good-hearted Karlie and Peter (“We’re stupid, but we’re not bad,” Karlie declares) or Cindy, whose tyrannical parenting arguably sparked Karlie’s addiction in the first place.
With each move in their fearsome game of interpersonal chess, Caroline, Karlie and Cindy ruthlessly demolish your expectations. Yet though the scope of the conflict is grand—it is not just mother versus daughter, it is Cindy’s Christianity versus Karlie’s apparent atheism—Woolley tells the tale with admirable restraint. The set is minimalist—with just enough props and details to suggest a waiting room, an office, a kitchen, or a play area—the lighting is subtle, and music is used only to ease scene transitions.
Which puts the emphasis where it belongs: on the actors. I could gush for hours about Mastel’s blending of manic energy and painful sensitivity (her transformation from agitated addict to humble waitress is seamless and stunning) or the delicious blend of smarminess and sincerity that Kelsey Tyler brings to the difficult role of Jay, Cindy’s pastor. Yet there is never any doubt that Luna Gale belongs to McLean, whose acting is so deft that it’s hard to believe that Caroline is a character, rather than an actual person who simply wandered onto the stage.
McLean’s performance is a masterclass in emotional control. Even when Caroline reveals that her mounting hatred of Cindy is influenced by the fact that she was raped by her religious father (“God is just like my fucking father,” she seethes), her delivery is eerily calm, even stiff. McLean understands that the tragedy of Caroline is that while she’s just as tormented as the parents and children she feels called to help, her job means that she doesn’t have the luxury of showing it.
I can’t say that I was entirely satisfied with where Caroline ends up in Luna Gale‘s traumatic yet oddly hopeful finale. That is not because I resent Gilman for choosing a messy, human ending over a tidy, happy one—it is because she, along with the actors and Woolley, made me care so desperately about the characters that I could no longer look at them as artistic objects. They became my friends, my colleagues and occasionally, my enemies. And that makes Luna Gale, like the momentous choice thrust upon Caroline, beautiful, terrifying and above all, impossible to resist.
Luna Gale will continue through May 12 at the CoHo Theater. Tickets and schedule information at http://www.cohoproductions.org/onstage/luna-gale/.