By: Griff Bludworth ~Staff Writer~
Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati is remarkable for producing theater focused on, as its website states, “compelling social issues,” while seldom, if ever, crossing the line into preaching or moralizing.
As “Luna Gale,” Ensemble’s current production, reminds us, its secret is doing plays that are not about social issues, but rather about vibrant characters who must find ways to live with them. “Luna Gale” is the story of a young, meth-addled couple struggling to reorient their lives to get their baby daughter, Luna, back from her zealously religious grandmother, and of the social worker who tries to help them while coming to terms with her own limitations and biases.
It is a moving and honest production that brings to the forefront its characters and their struggles to keep a handle on their respective lives. The heart of “Luna Gale” is its characters, and Ensemble has assembled a cast, led by Annie Fitzpatrick and Patrick E. Phillips, capable of putting each character’s story forward fully fleshed out.
While the script on occasion ventures into stereotypical and straw-man attacks on Christianity through the character of Pastor Jay (comically played by Charlie Clark), the core cast and dialogue mostly avoid such pitfalls. Fitzpatrick, who plays Caroline, the social worker in charge of Luna’s case, propels events in the play forward while hitting with equal emphasis and honesty her character’s sympathetic uncertainty as well as her more unpleasant biases.
Phillips, as Luna’s father Peter, creates the show’s most dramatic development arc. Phillips tracks Peter’s every change in movement, speech, understanding and intention visibly, making real Peter’s journey from meth-head to father. Phillips, along with Molly Israel, who plays Luna’s mother, create a picture of two people who have both shattered lives and amazing hope. Israel, Phillips, Fitzpatrick and the entire cast place before the audience difficult questions about who deserves our faith and our help, especially when paired with Luna’s grandma, Cindy (Kate Wilford), whose obvious good intentions hide deeper insecurities and Cliff (Brent Vimtrup), Caroline’s bureaucratic boss who constantly causes conflict.
The set and lights by Brian C. Mehring create countless simple and clean locales through the use of a partitioned turntable. The show sticks mostly to the realistic with the exception of the border around the turn table, which displays a wood. The bare branches accent the confusing and ever-evolving balance of trust and distrust among the characters and proved essential in tying the show together thematically.
Otherwise, Mehring’s set and lights in conjunction with D. Lynn Meyer’s organic staging create a detailed, realistic and unobtrusive backdrop for the development and exposition of the characters’ internal lives. Though “Luna Gale” is not about social issues, it shows its audience what people look like as they deal with and either overcome or succumb to issues that are a social reality.
Ultimately, however, “Luna Gale” is about a social worker who wishes she could do it all and a couple who wants to love the child they brought into the world, despite the world’s best efforts to get in the way. It is not the message that compels me to recommend “Luna Gale” with unapologetic certainty to anyone with time and a beating heart, but rather it is the opportunity that the show provides to see and understand several fascinating human beings.