Once in a while I have the privilege of attending a theatrical performance that moves me profoundly on many levels and reminds me why theatre is so vital to our lives.
Yesterday I attended Luna Gale by Rebecca Gilman at the Kirk Douglas Theater. I had been warned both by word-of-mouth and by written reviews of the play that it was undeniably good; that the subject was difficult but powerful.
Not your normal holiday fare in any sense, the play opens in an emergency room of a hospital where two young people, one in a post meth coma, the other tweaking out of her mind and force feeding skittles into the mouth of her comatose mate. It seems like there is no one in the hospital; the window is shuttered and these two, and us with them, are trapped in some hellish anteroom. Their behaviors are unsettling, and when the social worker emerges from the shuttered room, we learned that their baby, being treated offstage in a space they can no longer gain access to, has been taken into protective services.
As an audience, we are as hooked as these young parents are.
As the adoptive parent of a child taken into protective custody prenatally when his mother was arrested for drug use, I was mesmerized.
I’m not going to detail all the resulting scenes of the play, because the play unfolds delicately, subtly, powerfully, and to do so would spoil it for you. Ultimately, my assumptions about the social welfare system and its inner workings were shaken, and the play reminded me that however perfect we think we are, we are all humanly flawed. That the calm, efficient demeanor of those who help within the social welfare system could be as complex as the more visibly chaotic clients’ lives.
What moved me so much was not that, though I found that fascinating about the play. It was the power of a theatrical performance to lay it all out in front of us for our observation and betterment. It was a visceral reminder that our lives are not so much haphazard, but result from our journeys taken, not all of which are positive or evident to the outside world.
Rebecca Gilman plots “Luna Gale” with surgical precision – – aided by the steady hand of director Robert Falls, who shaped the story’s arc of acting moments to unfold truthfully, strategically, and with unrelenting surprises along the route.
Mary Beth Fisher’s performance as Caroline, the social worker, who wends her way through the emotional and behavioral IED-strewn family history of baby Luna Gale, gives sanctity to playing the current beat and not ever divulging what lies ahead. She is unflappably human in the way that live theatre can render. Her journey is our journey; however dissimilar the path she has taken, her resolution is ours.
I don’t really know how to say exactly what I experienced yesterday at the Kirk Douglas. Talking about the play afterwards with my husband over dinner at the nearby Café Vida, I found myself crying.
He and I have some experience in the world of the play. Twenty-three years ago, we adopted our son, Chris, through the Department of Children Services in Los Angeles. The process came flooding back to me while I was watching the play. The process of terminating parental rights, and the moral morass that the thought of that action created returned with a physical gut-wrenching moment.
However, our adoption experience was very different from that in the play. So it wasn’t just the pain of the play’s specifics that affected me, but the play’s ability to open an observation window, like the one on stage into the visitation nursery, through which we could feel the effect of the resource shortages on these specific humans. We’ve all read about the shortages and failures of the system in the paper. But yesterday, every one of us in that theatre felt it in a tangible, personal and emotional way. And that’s what made me cry.
The play reached off of the page and through the well-orchestrated production elements assembled by Robert Falls and his team of gifted designers, reached right into my heart and pulled it hard.
And that’s the value of theater. That’s why I go so often to the theater. I need to be pulled and made to think beyond the safety of my world. I left the theater, wanting to take every person I knew to that play.
I actually considered over dinner and for the rest of the day, what would it take for me to become a social worker? I know the more cynical among you are thinking – oh, Els got her emotional Yaya’s off at the theater and then she’ll go back and continue in her daily life. Blah blah blah. What does it matter if she takes no action from this powerful event?
But I’m reminded that every day as I teach and work with students making theater, that this is what we are striving to do. This is the power of our art. This is the power of our daily work and struggles against budgets and resources and time. We all are struggling to make a play that has the impact of Luna Gale. and there is nothing wrong or dishonorable about that. Thank you,Rebecca Gilman, for reminding us all of our life’s work.