Between a rock and a hard place.
That's where veteran social worker Caroline finds herself in Rebecca Gilman's exceptional "Luna Gale," in its superbly acted, astutely directed world premiere at Goodman Theatre.
"Luna Gale"★ ★ ★ ★
Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800, goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 23. Also 7:30 p.m. Feb. 11; 2 p.m. Feb. 13 and 20. No 2 p.m. show Feb. 1; no 7:30 p.m. show Feb. 9 and 16.
Running time: About two hours, 10 minutes with intermission
Parking: $21 parking (with Goodman validation) at the Government Center Self Park at Clark and Lake streets
Rating: For adults; contains strong language, mature subject matter
A protective services worker in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Caroline has been assigned the case of an infant (the titular Luna), whose teenage parents have been charged with neglect. It's up to the overworked, ever-tardy Caroline (brilliantly played by Mary Beth Fisher, in a role seemingly tailor-made for her), to recommend where to permanently place Luna.
Will it be with her young parents Karlie (Reyna de Courcy) and Peter (Colin Sphar)? Undereducated and under-employeed, these 19-year-olds love their daughter. But that hasn't stopped them from experimenting with methamphetamine, a decision that could get their parental rights terminated if Caroline's by-the-numbers boss Cliff (an unrelenting Erik Hellman) has his way.
Or, will Caroline recommend the baby live with her maternal grandmother Cindy (Jordan Baker in a restrained, yet substantial performance), a divorced nurse's assistant and evangelical Christian whose relationship with her daughter is troubled at best? Caroline also has the option of placing the baby in foster care, entrusting her to strangers and possibly consigning her to a problem-plagued system for the rest of her childhood. As options go, it's the least desirable, although former foster care kid Lourdes (a spot-on Melissa DuPrey), a college-bound 18-year-old, suggests the system has some success.
But Gilman's engrossing, emotionally charged drama isn't just about a custody battle. The play -- whose subject is as timely as today's headlines -- also addresses the "best interest of the child," and what happens when caseworkers and courts are confronted with competing interests.
Initially, Luna's best interests seem to rest with Cindy. She has a tidy home, a steady job and the support of her church community and affably overbearing pastor, played by Richard Thieriot, who deftly balances cliched geniality with genuine faith.
But Cindy's spiritual motives trouble the secular Caroline, who has issues of her own. She clearly wants to reunite the baby with Karlie (a fiercely manic, completely credible de Courcy) and Peter (an endearingly goofy Sphar, who instills in this new dad a fundamental decency). They're bright kids who seem to be back on track after what the savvy Caroline recognizes as a brief meth detour. They're doing what they can to get their daughter back. But, with no rehab beds available, they're relying on counseling to keep clean, making their recovery precarious and lessening the likelihood of reuniting with Luna.
Goodman's expertly cast production is staged by Robert Falls, on Todd Rosenthal's appropriately institutional set which rotates from one dismal government location to the next. Falls' direction is brisk, straightforward and reflects a master's ability to calibrate, through multiple plot twists, the tension in this remarkable, well-written play.
Skilled at unspooling a plot, Gilman also creates complicated, multidimensional characters. Among her most memorable is Caroline, an imperfect woman trying to do right by Luna. Still, Caroline recognizes that her efforts may not be enough.
Fisher is nothing short of amazing as a woman who always seems to be one step ahead of everyone else in the room. She's a woman whose compassion is tempered by the kind of resigned pragmatism that comes from 25 years of assisting people through the worst possible circumstances. If Caroline appears dispassionate, it's only to shield herself from the tragedy she experiences in her line of work.
It's the kind of exquisitely ambivalent, intelligent performance we've come to expect from this award-winning actress. We're lucky she's here. We're lucky she stays.