“Luna Gale” explores responsibility in an overloaded social services system

Lauren Hirsch & Ian Hopps in Luna Gale. Image courtesy of Capital Stage. [Photo: Charr Crail]

Is there a litmus test by which we can determine who is best fit to care for a child?

On the surface, Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale appears to center itself around this dilemma. But things are not as they seem, and the story quickly shifts into a harrowing look at the complexities of individual, societal and parental responsibility, and the ways in which they come to a head in an overloaded social services system.

The play opens in an emergency room in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where baby Luna Gale has been admitted with severe dehydration. Luna’s young parents are in varied states of incapacitation. Her father Peter (played by Ian Hopps) is practically cationic, slumped in a waiting room chair in an apparent meth-induced crash. In contrast, Luna’s mother Karlie (Lauren Hirsch) is in constant motion; jittery, anxious and clearly under the influence as she demands answers to her daughter’s health and whereabouts.

It is here that over-worked social worker Caroline (Amy Resnick) informs the young couple that their parental rights have been temporarily terminated as a result of their positive drug tests.

Amy Resnick, Lauren Hirsch and Ian Hopps in Luna Gale. Image courtesy of Capital Stage. [Photo: Charr Crail]

Baby Luna is placed in kinship care with Karlie’s overtly evangelical mother Cindy (a role piously executed by Shannon Mahoney). Cindy eventually seeks to pursue permanent custody over the child, a move that is actively supported by Jay, her Pastor (convincingly delivered by Peter Story), as well as Caroline’s boss, Cliff. We soon learn that Cliff is actively involved in Pastor Jay and Cindy’s church and the three of them form a unified trinity whose intent is to prevent Luna’s parents from reunification.  

Caroline navigates the daunting bureaucracy of the social services system with quirky intelligence and an entertaining balance of expertise coupled with exhaustion. Her character convincingly conveys the weariness that comes from decades of emotionally draining work, frequent run-ins with a condescending boss, a predecessor’s past missteps that loom over her current decisions, accusations of religious bias and memories of her own past that the case brings to light.

But perhaps one of the most striking aspects of the play comes by way of the performances by Ian Hoops as Peter and Jezebel Olivares, who encapsulates the role of Lourdes, a former foster child who seems to have a chance at making it through the system unscathed.

Throughout the course of the production, we witness Peter’s palpable transformation from unfit father into the embodiment of an admirably dedicated parent, determined to regain custody of his daughter.

Aaron Wilton and Amy Resnick in Luna Gale. Image courtesy of Capital Stage. [Photo: Charr Crail]

In contrast, Lourdes begins as a bright-eyed, promising graduate of the foster care system, on her way to college and with every intent to lead a statistic-defying life. Upon her reappearance in the production, however, it becomes clear that the distracted, dangerously disengaged young woman she has become following her exit from the system, is illustrative of every caseworkers’ worst fear.

The juxtaposition of Peter and Lourdes’s simultaneous rise and decline is a testimony to the volatile nature of a youth’s well-being and outcome, particularly those in the throes of addiction, or at the mercy of the foster care system. Their rapid transformations further illustrate the importance of Caroline’s intervention into Baby Luna’s placement options, and how they will ultimately affect her life trajectory.

In her production of Luna Gale, Rebecca Gilman makes it clear that she won’t shy away from the uncomfortable, ugly aspects of society and the ways in which we handle our most vulnerable citizens. Yet, despite its heavy nature, one can easily leave this production feeling hopeful for humanity.

“Luna Gale” plays at Capital Stage in Sacramento through Nov. 19.

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Christina Martinez
Christina Martinez is an early childhood educator working in the culturally and linguistically diverse communities of South Sacramento. In addition, she is the digital media coordinator for MYS, LLC a project management firm and a co-founder of #NoTeenShame.