LUNA GALE, Ensemble Theatre, 12 September-13 October 2018. Photography by Phil Erbacher: above - Georgie Parker; below - Lucy Heffernan and Jacob Warner; below again - Michelle Doake, Georgie Parker and David Whitney
What is is about the rush to judge another human being that is so appealing to so many? It’s an ugly trait and in Rebecca Gilman’s 2014 play Luna Gale, the writer gets to have it bite the biters with great vigour and sly humour.
Initially in the dock are 19-year-old addicts and parents of baby Luna Gale, the unpromising Karlie (Lucy Heffernan) and Peter (Jacob Warner). Stuck in a hospital waiting room for three hours, Peter is out of it and Karlie is getting more and more impatient. They brought their baby to emergency because she was unwell.
Top marks for bringing her in, but her dehydration and other symptoms scream “neglect”. Social worker Caroline (Georgie Parker) has seen it all, from every angle, over 25 years and she sees ignorance and inept youth rather than malice. It’s Caroline’s Sisyphean task to make decisions for the baby’s future wellbeing. She looks exhausted as well as preternaturally vigilant.
Even as the fragile new life is delivered into Caroline’s care, she is preparing to see one of her successes, Lourdes (Ebony Vagulans), graduate beyond her legal responsibility at age 18. For both, the emotions are a rollercoaster of joy, pride, fear and sadness.
Baby Luna Gale seems to be lucky, however, as maternal grandmother Cindy (Michelle Doake) is on hand to take her in while Karlie and Peter try to get themselves together. So far so promising...
Unfortunately, life is not a bowl of cherries. Or if it is, there are lots of pits and pitfalls along the way. Rehab and other assistance for the young parents are a lot scarcer than drug supply. While Caroline struggles through the bureaucratic obstacle course to help them, her younger, by-the-book boss, Cliff (Scott Sheridan), who got the job that should have been hers – sexism and ageism much? – is more interested in good numbers than good outcomes.
And sweet granny Cindy turns out to not only want to adopt Luna Gale but crush her to the bosom of her End-of-Days, happy-clapper, Church of the Unholy Bigot (okay, so call me judgemental). If you’re wondering about End of Days mobs, however, just this week it was announced that, “the birth of a completely red heifer in the Holy Land” signals, “the second coming of Jesus and Judgement Day”.
Why is this significant? Well apparently, the Apocalypse will occur after the Jews return to Israel (tick), and after seven years of natural disasters (tick, tick, tick). The red calf is required because, according to Numbers 19:2, “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish and upon which never came a yoke.” Evidently this means The Rapture is imminent. That’s when “Christians” (live or dead) will take to the skies and join Jesus, while non-believers get the never-ending fires of Hell.
So there. No wonder Cindy, in the person of the inimitable Michelle Doake looks so pleased with herself. She is supported by her unctuous Pastor (David Whitney) and by another – unexpected – ally, and things begin to slide into repellent territory really fast.
Like much good drama, Luna Gale starts with a beguiling leavening of laughter, but – much rarer – it continues with unpredictable and confounding twists and turns. Director Susanna Dowling adroitly handles this progression and also the three discrete story strands. The actors are tremendous: Georgie Parker is subtle and grounded in a richly nuanced performance as the central figure around whom the rest spin.
Michelle Doake is sweetly appealing and daffy as the (figuratively) rosy-cheeked granny; underneath is the steely implacability of a true zealot. Both she and Parker have been given – and grabbed with both hands – the opportunity to go beyond their frequent typecasting and are simply terrific.
Also thrilling are Lucy Heffernan and Jacob Warner as the hapless teenage parents. Heffernan’s barely suppressed rage and frustration spills out into the audience: one would be a hard-heart not to want to help her. Similarly, Warner’s unpromising beginning as the semi-comatose druggy grows into a very different young man, and again, you’d have to be a hard-heart not to cheer him on.
David Whitney, on the other hand, is mesmerising as a religious sleaze who knits his morals and reasoning like a Fair Isle jumper, but without the charm and warmth. On the fringe yet arrogantly malevolent is the ambitious bureaucrat Cliff – also a strong performance – while Ebony Vagulans as the scarred new adult Lourdes is simultaneously frail and strong – heartbreaking.
The two hours plus interval of this rewarding drama is played out on a clever set (design Simone Romaniuk) whose sliding doors, windows and reveals are complemented by Nicholas Higgins’ spot-perfect lighting and linking electro music fragments (sound design: Marty Jamieson).
Luna Gale is an exceptional production of a good play. The actors are captivating in their different ways; Georgie Parker is first among equals, and it’s a night to remember. Thoroughly recommended.