Rebecca Gilman is a fearless writer who has repeatedly chosen tough subjects and dealt with them forthrightly and with uncommon astuteness, even if her plays, with the exception of Spinning Into Butter, have had a harder time finding a path onto mainstream stages. Her latest, Luna Gale, now at The Kirk Douglas in a Goodman Theatre world premiere production, is no different. It is one of this playwright’s strongest pieces to date and has a chance at reaching broader audiences.
Robert Falls, the Artistic Director of Chicago’s Goodman (where Gilman is an artistic associate), has been one of Gilman’s earliest champions and a steady supporter of her polemical work. Directed by Falls and extremely well cast, Luna Gale delivers a captivating view of the complex issues surrounding child protective services anywhere in America.
Sound like a dry subject? Not in Gilman’s hands. She confronts us with a pair of meth-imbibing youngsters, Karlie (Reyna de Courcy) and Peter (Colin Sphar), who are in an emergency waiting room because they are seemingly incapable of properly caring for their infant baby girl. When Child Protective Services gets involved, they are connected to a compassionate middle-aged case worker, Caroline (Mary Beth Fisher), charged with finding a workable solution for the child’s future.
But Caroline is not just compassionate. She’s seasoned and smart, interested in finding a solution that might lead to a re-unification of parents and child. A logical immediate outcome is placing the baby with Karlie’s mother, Cindy (Jordan Baker), a serious Christian who seems able to provide a decent home. Except that Karlie won’t hear of it.
The plot thickens when Cindy’s pastor (Richard Thieriot) becomes involved. We begin to see Cindy’s religiosity as not entirely benign and Karlie’s resistance to her mother as not pure teenage rebellion. But not before other developments come to light that involve Caroline’s subjective response to Karlie and Peter’s predicament, along with events surrounding the situation that include pushback from Cliff (Erik Hellman), Caroline’s “boss,” Cindy’s desire to not just keep but adopt the baby, and other subtleties that further entangle an already messy situation.
What makes this play as engrossing as a thriller is the way Gilman leads us into this story by small increments. We learn slowly who these people really are — the seemingly good and the seemingly not. Nothing is quite what we think, and a bellwether emerges in the person of Lourdes (Melissa DuPrey), a foster home graduate, whose apparent success at overcoming her own odds seems extraneous to the main plot until it shockingly is not.
It takes great skill and nuance to build a many-headed gorgon out of an apparently straightforward case (the first sign of a really gifted playwright). Gilman engages us by degrees, leading us down a web of by-ways, all of which eventually reveal not just situational facts, but the internal realities that guide every player in this game.
Good casting, key to the success of any production, is especially crucial here. There is not a missed beat or false note in these actors, from Hellman’s small-minded Cliff, to Caroline’s intelligent, unsentimental yet flawed social worker (“I love children, that’s why I never have them”).
Jordan Baker’s Cindy, who could easily come off as a one-dimensional mother figure, displays real mettle, and Thieriot as her pastor/counselor avoids coming across as merely sanctimonious. They all give us reasons to believe the integrity of their responses according to their own convictions.
Sphar is a lovely surprise as the gentle Peter, but it is the skin-and-bones de Courcy who astonishes as the heartbreaking Karlie. She has all the nervous mannerisms and tics of a meth-destructed addict, yet still offers a painful glimpse of the aching “good child” trapped within.
The cogent multiple sets by Todd Rosenthal benefit from a turntable stage, well complemented by Robert Wierzel’s lighting. This is a powerful, polished play (and production) that cries out to move to the Mark Taper Forum stage. May it find its way there sooner rather than later.
WHAT: LUNA GALE
WHEN: Tuesdays – Fridays, 8pm; Saturdays, 2 & 8pm; Sundays 1 & 6:30pm. Through Dec. 21
WHERE: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City, 90232
TICKETS: $25-$55 (subject to change), available at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org or by calling 213-628-2772 or in person at the Center Theatre Group box office or at the Kirk Douglas Theatre box office two hours prior to curtain.
LUNA GALE photos by Craig Schwartz
Question: Why do some shows strike us as powerful the minute we experience them (Luna Gale) while others take time to grow on us (Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods)?
The latter didn’t take forever to emerge as a hit, but over the years it has been tweaked — and to some degree tamed. When it opened in 1986 at San Diego’s Old Globe, its crisscrossing plotlines were problematic — all freely borrowed from familiar fairy-tales and loosely combined into a cautionary tale about being very careful what you wish for.
This musical mash-up now on stage at the Wallis Performing Arts Center in Beverly Hills is a charmingly unpretentious revival that originated at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) earlier this year and it has shaken off most of the peskiness. It still starts with wishes: Cinderella (a superb, even-keeled Jennie Greenberry), wishing to attend the palace ball; Jack, a young man wishing his old cow would give milk; a baker and his wife, wishing they could have a baby. When these two find out the old witch next door has placed an infertility curse on them over the alleged theft of “magic” beans from her garden, she imposes conditions for concocting a potion to lift the curse: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, a slipper as pure as gold. And the chase is on.
When it comes to plots, this one is not well articulated (neither were many of Shakespeare’s). There are other people in this village, such as spoiled-brat princes in search of brides, a willful Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, stolen at birth by the witch who’s raised her as a daughter.
You can see why this James Lapine book suffers from confusion. What works well at the Wallis is the marriage of music and mayhem. Sondheim’s score, the tie that binds, makes us willing to overlook the parts of the stories that don’t quite connect. There is playfulness and enchantment (this word recurs when thinking of this show), greatly enhanced by the tongue-in-cheek and unpretentious approach of director/musical director Amanda Dehnert and her vigorous young company.
In the end, fairy tales and musicals don’t have to be believable as long as their songs convey and clarify the point of their stories. With Sondheim, who can’t do superficial, things always go deeper. Everything is richly layered. And darker. And seductive. And as the lives and loves of the denizens of these Woods intersect and unravel, so does their happiness.
Jack’s mother is accidentally killed. Red Riding Hood is orphaned. Rapunzel has a nervous breakdown. The two princes (Jeremy Peter Johnson and John Tufts) who yearn for the women they hope to win (“Agony”) find them less interesting when they’ve won them. The baker’s wife’s “moment in the woods” with Cinderella’s prince, is another less-than event… And as the characters die or leave or cope, they become better people.
This show’s appeal grows with the inventiveness each new company and new production brings to it. A slimmed down FIASCO Theatre version at the Old Globe earlier this year had a similar youthful spring in its step. But because Dehnert controlled the staging as well as the music of this OSF production, it most seamlessly marries the two. Even when it doesn’t resolve the complexity of the story lines (it doesn’t), the show moves so briskly, so cheerfully and with singer/actors that bring so much vocal power and joy to the songs, that we happily succumb to the magic of the experience.
Scenic designer Rachel Hauck and costumer Linda Roethke make the most of the deliberate casualness of the approach, navigating between no costumes or sets, to whatever is called for as the show advances. Above all, Dehnert deserves most of the credit for a spirited, lively and (yes) enchanting approach.
WHAT: INTO THE WOODS
WHEN: Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 pm; Saturdays 3 & 8pm; Sundays, 2 & 7pm, through December 21
WHERE: Bram Goldsmith Theatre, The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90210
TICKETS: $29.00-$110.00, available in person @ The Wallis box office or @ 310-746-4000 or online @ www.thewallis.org
INTO THE WOODS Photos by Kevin Parry
Meanwhile, in the smaller Lovelace Studio at the Wallis is Love, Noël, featuring Sharon Lawrence and Harry Groener in a boutique two-hander based on the songs and letters of the indestructible Noël Coward. It is a reprise of a show that played last season with different performers.
There is no attempt here to “look” like the characters they impersonate (Lawrence impersonates more than one person) and there is more singing than speaking to this cream-puff of a show. Accompanied by a solo piano (Gerald Sternbach at the keyboard) and directed by Jeanie Hackett with just a pair of music stands and a few props, this intimate cabaret concert starts slow but builds nicely. Lawrence, in an exquisite Art-Deco gown, and Groener in a tux, recreate a nostalgic vanished world of wit and civility.
Coward was not without ego or class, which is why he never surrendered to delusions of grandeur. In his own words: “I believe that since my life began/All I’ve ever had/Is a talent to amuse…” He claimed to be “related to no one,” mingled with the likes of Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, was proposed to once by Greta Garbo, wrote humorous ditties (“Why Do the Wrong People Travel”) as joyously as he delivered gorgeous love songs (“If Love Were All,” “I’ll See You Again,” “Some Day I’ll Find You”). Included among the latter is “Mad About the Boy,” an indelible anthem of sorts intended as a same-sex ballad when such things were taboo. It is sung here in a heterosexual context, but whatever…
These engaging two hours should satisfy a niche audience of Coward fans. Coward is too often seen as a minor player in the firmament of artistic excellence, but don’t believe it. He’s a “minor player” destined to outlast us all.
WHAT: LOVE, NOËL
WHEN: Thursdays and Fridays, 8:30 pm; Saturdays at 3:30 & 8:30pm (except Dec 13 at 4:30 pm and 8:30 pm); Sundays at 2:30 pm. Through Dec.21
WHERE: Lovelace Studio Theatre, The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90210
TICKETS: $70-$90 (includes open bar), available in person @ The Wallis box office or @ 310-746-4000 or online @ www.thewallis.org
Top image: The cast of Into the Woods, one of three LA theatre events not to miss this month.