Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale may be set in present day Iowa, but the questions it raises – and their rankling replies – are of interest to any country with a bureaucratic responsibility for its children. The risk in accepting this culpability is the knowledge that with one false move, one slip of a vulnerable child through the net, the entire system falls apart, taking both public trust and private conviction with it. The glowering magnitude of this challenge is faithfully represented in Lucy Osborne’s set: endlessly stacked shelves of towering case files incorporate a revolving stage that shifts location from office to parents’ home to grandmother’s house. Luna Gale’s fate shifts accordingly – an infant, who even at the tender age of six months finds herself at the heart of a decision that will alter her future irreparably: whether her care will be entrusted to her meth-addict parents or to her dubiously evangelical grandmother.
Alexander Arnold is brilliantly funny as Peter, Luna’s father, and the audience can’t help but laugh every time he opens his mouth. Conversely his monologue describing a sexual assault on his girlfriend Karlie harrowingly drops the temperature. Karlie, as played by Rachel Redford, is less convincing yet still capable as Luna’s mother. Sharon Small is exceptionally good as Caroline, the social worker lumbered with the decision whether or not to let Luna be taken from her parents. This dilemma (ironically, given her ethical fisticuffs with her boss, the child’s grandmother and her pastor) is a question of faith – Caroline must choose if Luna’s future wellbeing lies with her beleaguered mother and father, and whether they’re even worthy of a chance to prove their paternal mettle. But Caroline has a dilemma in herself, too: whether it’s possible (or indeed desirable) for a figure in a position of authority to remain entirely neutral. Her instincts on the case drive the piece compellingly, and we follow her willingly, even if it feels a little too easy to take her side in the face of such evangelical obstinacy.
Yet the vehicle for this humane concept never quite gets rolling. The first half is somewhat static, feeling curiously like an episode of some earnest Sunday night social drama. The machinery of the piece is spannered with dialogue, and even with the oil of good acting and accents the sheer weight of imparted information begins to grind. There are far too many scene changes, which stilt the emotional flow of the action. And in comparison to the central three characters the other parts feel two-dimensional.
There is plenty of fire and brimstone debate on religion here, but the real argument doesn’t seem to be about evangelism. We may um and ah over whether it’s a playwright’s duty to deliver a message, but with a journalistically astute piece such as this it’s hard not to hanker for answers. Here there are none, or at least no easy one, and perhaps this is why it may leave some out in the cold. All in all Luna Gale is an important and involving production, well directed by Michael Attenborough – but somehow lacks the good home that the subject matter so clearly deserves.