Approximately a quarter of a million children in the U.S. are placed out of their homes annually due to child abuse and neglect or risk of child maltreatment. Luna Gale is one of those children, and Sharon Small plays Caroline, the social worker assigned to finding her a more suitable home. As the plot unravels, it becomes clear that in order for justice to occur, some rules have to be broken.
Rebecca Gilman, an American playwright whose works are frequently performed in the UK, reveals that ‘the play is set in a world in which people are not always allowed to say what they are really thinking.’ And it is clear the cast really understand their playwright’s aim, for almost every line is loaded with some coded subtext, and the skill of Gilman’s writing makes this a thoroughly enjoyable (if that’s the right word to describe an insight into child neglect) two hours.
The quiet scariness of Caroline Faber’s Cindy is a highlight. The soft-spoken character is not only a captivating evangelical Christian, but, perhaps more terrifyingly, a convincing one. Some of the strongest scenes are between Small and Faber, who colour their lines with an intriguing depth. What is so hypnotic about their first scene together, and what is perhaps at the heart of the play as a whole, is Gilman’s ability to challenge and defy first impressions. Faber’s Cindy seems genuine and sane in her first scene, scuttling around her kitchen in an attempt to rapidly baby proof it. I rather liked her. Yet the actions that transpire challenge her supposedly saint-like demeanor.
Gilman’s recurring message seems to be that people aren’t always what they seem, and that there is always more complexity within us than a case file or a hospital visit can show. Peter, played by the electric Alexander Arnold, is another example. When we first meet Peter, he is almost unconscious, being forced to munch on skittles as he crashes from a meth high. As the play progresses, however, we see a quietly intelligent, witty and affectionate young man who loves his girlfriend and child deeply. He renames his support group ‘Misogynists Anonymous’ and rejects a complimentary bag of nappies because they ‘stink of welfare’. Arnold’s twitches, sideways glances, and emotional reactions are incredibly watchable, and hopefully mark the beginning of a long and successful career in theatre.
Lucy Osborne’s set designs are always extraordinary, and Luna Gale is no exception. The backdrop consists of towering stacks of case files and boxes, an overwhelming sight that really hits home when Caroline cries in a moment of desperation: ‘there are just so many of you’. While the scene changes are a tad drawn out, they are worth it for the expanse of detailed locations. Vending machines and children’s murals are just some of the aspects that add to the reality of the production.
Gilman also adds in her interview with Hampstead Theatre’s literary manager that ‘you can really judge how well a Society is working by how well it cares for vulnerable people’. And perhaps Luna Gale can be added to the list of the scary reality that is now contemporary America.