Luna Gale at New Century Theatre: Riveting from Start to Finish

The cast of Luna Gale at a talk-back after Thursday's show at Smith College.
The cast of New Century Theatre’s Luna Gale at a talk-back after Thursday’s show at Smith College.

“Luna Gale” is the best play I’ve seen New Century Theatre perform in the five years I’ve been enjoying their annual summer slate of shows at Smith College’s Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts. From start to finish, we were transfixed by the fast-paced dialogue, spot-on characters, and the impressive four-sided rotating set that provided realistic rooms, shifting between a social worker’s office, a home kitchen, a break room and a shabby apartment. There were two other sets on either side, creating rich and realistic environments in which to unfold this complicated and riveting story about a custody battle for an infant named Luna Gale between a mother and her teenage daughter.

Playwright Rebecca Gilman is famous for her on-the-money accurate dialogue–she works in the acronyms, the jargon, and most importantly, the attitudes of the parties involved with such ease that the dialogue almost didn’t seem scripted.

Those in the audience in the social work field agreed at a talkback after the show that the premise, the actions and the conflicts ran true to their experiences in the challenging world of custody battles. Nothing was clear cut, there was no easy answer, and it would have taken a wiser man than Solomon to decide which outcome would be best. But the inherent issue was that everyone in the play has an agenda.

The play begins with Karlie (Ashley Malloy) and Peter (Connor Paradis) waiting in the emergency room with their baby being treated for problems that come from parental neglect. Peter is slumped over and obviously on drugs, and Karlie is fantastically irritated as they wait, and then Caroline, (Cate Damon) the social worker, emerges with bad news. They’re obviously not suitable parents, and we watch as they learn that they are losing their child. The scene switches (with the use of the rotating set, a whole new room is swung into place) to Cindy, (Sue Dziura) Carly’s mother’s apartment.

We learn of her desire to gain full custody and then we begin to get a feeling about who she is. As the actors said afterward, what’s worse–a evangelical Christian or a meth addict? Sadly, in our Universe that’s a Hobson’s Choice, and we follow a complicated series of scenes that reveal each character’s own agenda. For Caroline, it’s a matter of what she thinks should happen, affected by her own terrible childhood memories of abuse. She uses her knowledge of how to work the system to achieve her goal.

But it’s not all smooth sailing, as her boss, Cliff, (Greg Alexander) pushes back since he is friends with her pastor, and shares his Christian beliefs. While Cindy and the pastor talk of the Rapture, and Karlie fails her drug test, there are so many reasons why each of them both do and don’t deserve to have custody. But there is goodness that we see in Peter, which makes it all the more complicated.

Each of these actors are both believable and honest, they are able to evoke true empathy from the audience and they make their cases strongly. Stand outs were Cate Damon’s exasperated social worker Caroline, who is in nearly every scene, and Cliff, who serves up a perfect rendering of the bureaucrat looking to make District Manager while battling with Caroline his challenging employee. Karlie and Peter nail their late teenaged dialogue perfectly. This show kept everyone on their seat’s edge, and with dialogue like this, that’s no wonder. Highly recommended.

Luna Gale continues through July 25 at Smith College’s Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets at 413-585-3220.