The battle for custody of a 6-month-old baby girl entices with compelling magnetism in Rebecca Gilman’s 2014 contemporary drama “Luna Gale,” currently receiving an outstanding local premiere at the Dayton Theatre Guild and directed with superb, true-to-life delicacy by Debra Kent.
Misunderstanding, confusion, regret, and hope bolsters this fascinating tale fueled by Caroline, a veteran social worker in Cedar Rapids, Iowa trying to place the title character, neglected by her drug addicted teen parents Karlie and Peter, in the best environment. Fully invested in her job almost to her detriment, Caroline is thrown for a loop when Luna’s grandmother Cindy, Karlie’s estranged mom, reveals her devout evangelical beliefs during her request for permanent adoption. Finding Cindy’s motives off-putting, Caroline tries to figure out how the recently rehabilitated Karlie and Peter can stake their case. What transpires unfolds as an intriguing war of ideology and responsibility as matters of love and devotion as well as the complicated search for the truth leaps to the forefront with riveting flourish.
As Caroline, the terrifically formidable Cheryl Mellen gives one of her finest, most multifaceted performances. Cool, strict, empathetic, and splendidly investigatory, Mellen conveys the total breadth of a complex woman trying to cope with bureaucracy at work and the pain of her emotionally scarred past while fighting for what is right no matter how dicey the result. Appealing Guild newcomers Kayla Graham and Andrew Poplin deliver breakthrough performances as the troubled Karlie and Peter, providing skillful transformations as both characters progress over time. In particular, Graham’s edginess, frustration and anguish typifies Karlie’s despair while perfectly contrasting Poplin’s affable, caring and mature attributes signaling Peter’s potential as a meaningful father and provider. As the faith-based Cindy, Cassandra Engber is wonderfully credible and passionately outspoken in her heated exchanges with Mellen. She’s also strong in her brief appearance opposite Poplin in his knockout moment late in Act 2 gently revealing a key moment in Karlie’s life that contributed to her downward spiral unbeknownst to Cindy. Timothy Moore, in a refreshing change of pace from his previous string of well-meaning good guys, is flawlessly snide as Cliff, Caroline’s overbearing, ruthless supervisor. John-Michael Lander is also winningly grounded as Cindy’s cheery, Joel Osteen-esque minister Pastor Jay. Heather Atkinson, memorable earlier this season alongside Engber in the Guild’s “The Last Lifeboat,” solidly completes the cast as Lourdes, one of Caroline’s wayward if superfluous clients intended to provide insight into her weighty workload and messy upbringing.
Additionally, the intimate world of the play is efficiently brought to life by set designer Blake Senseman, costumer Kristine Caffrey, lighting designer Tony Fende, Deidre Root and Debra Strauss’ properties, and K.L. Storer’s effective soundtrack, a source of rich musical commentary that remains a hallmark of his collaborations with Kent (which extends to her equally marvelous Guild productions of “Time Stands Still” and “Good People”).
Gilman’s plays include “Spinning Into Butter,” which received its local premiere at the Human Race Theatre Company in 2001, and “Boy Gets Girl,” which received its local premiere at the Guild in 2003. “Luna Gale,” among her most relatable works, captivatingly brings harsh realities to the surface with the promise and anticipation of reunion and new beginnings.
“Luna Gale” continues through Feb. 5 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave., Dayton. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Act One: 60 minutes; Act Two: 60 minutes. Tickets are $19 for adults, $17 for seniors, and $12 for students. For tickets or more information, call (937) 278-5993 or visit www.daytontheatreguild.org. Patrons are advised the play contains adult language.