Talented actors tackle intricate child custody case in ‘Luna Gale’ at Boca Stage

The deeply moving drama, Luna Gale, now being performed at Boca Stage, has a plenitude of plot threads, not all of which are tied off in the two-hour performance with a single intermission.

Seven excellent actors give life to this intensely emotional story built around a veteran social worker, Caroline (Jacqueline Laggy), who in 25 years on the job has learned the system strives for success but experiences many failures during its altruistic quest to find workable resolutions for the problems of children at risk. 

Playwright Rebecca Gilman, whose other topical works include Spinning into Butter, Boy Gets Girl and The Glory of Living, debuted Luna Gale at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago (where she is an artistic associate) in 2014.

Annya Bright, left, and Jacqueline Laggy in “Luna Gale,” now playing at Boca Stage. (Photo by Amy Pasquantonio)

First off, Caroline thinks she has a clear-cut case of negligence when she meets Peter (Jason Pierre) and Karlie (Abby Wolf), two teenaged drug addicts accused of neglecting their baby, Luna Gale, who is never actually seen in the show. Still, the audience is clearly aware of her and her circumstances through character references.

After a pointless meeting with the belligerent teen parents at a hospital where Luna Gale is being treated for dehydration, Caroline places the infant daughter in the care of Karlie’s mother, hospital employee Cindy (Annya Bright) – a move that seems replete with pluses. The deed sparks an angry encounter that grows into a family conflict exposing a shadowy, secretive past.

“This is an intense and compelling play, with brilliant dialogue, that grapples with a serious situation,” said Director Keith Garsson. 

He offers a salient observation in the show’s program. “Although written before the COVID pandemic, some parallels exist. Whether it be health care workers or social workers, physical or mental health, vaccines or drug abstinence, the battle between individual responsibility and the state’s duty to rescue its citizens from their own folly continues to stretch our limited resources long past the breaking point.”

Jason Pierre and Abby Wolf in “Luna Gale,” now playing at Boca Stage. (Photo by Amy Pasquantonio)

Luna Gale offers less examination of systemic shortcomings and concentrates more on people whose intentions may be good, but whose personal lives have been tainted and thus, constrained, by drug use, sexual abuse, violence and neglect – elements that frequently have a negative impact on child placement.

The production’s intriguing look at the crossover between the vulnerability of the child welfare department and the uncontrollability of personal foibles also brings religion into the situation – something that only muddies the situation. 

Religion, which is generally not a relevant element in child custody cases, becomes an intrusive focus in the latter part of this play. The intervention of Pastor Jay (Brian Edgecomb) further complicates the mother-daughter upheaval. Cindy wants Luna Gale baptized; Karlie doesn’t. And that’s just the tip of the ecclesiastical iceberg.

In fact, Caroline becomes alarmed when Cindy expresses a determination to gain permanent custodial rights for Luna, demanding that the court impose the often-feared TPR – termination of parental rights judgment — on Karlie and Peter. Fueled by her own deep religious beliefs, Cindy sees her daughter as irredeemable.

The finale offers a conclusion, but little in the way of positive consequences. The show, directed by Boca Stage boss Garsson, delivers the goods by way of a stellar ensemble. Laggy, whose acting abilities have shone at many past performance sites, portrays Caroline in a dry, unfussy and unsentimental manner that grows in depth as her character becomes caught up in a conflict that reactivates long-buried sources of personal trauma that parallel Cindy’s woes. It also causes tension between her and the younger man now in charge of her department, Cliff, played with cocky, self-confidence by Randall Swinton. 

Randall Swinton, left, and Jacqueline Laggy in “Luna Gale,” now playing at Boca Stage. (Photo by Amy Pasquantonio)

Cliff shows his backstabbing side in his overbearing, shoddy, by-the-book treatment of the far more experienced Caroline. At the same time, he is actually looking for another job outside the system.

Wolf and Pierre are alternatively animated and sleepy, but always on point. Wolf plays her role with a particularly wide-eyed demeanor indicative of the show couple’s meth addiction.

Marlo Rodriguez’s portrayal of Lourdes, supposedly one of the system’s success stories, belies that belief when her life takes a tragic turn at play’s end. The actress is cheerfully buoyant in her important, but brief appearance.

As Cindy, Bright’s capacity to capture the truly horrific nature of emotionalism is a marvel. And Edgecomb brings a holier-than-thou attitude to his portrayal without making a mockery of the collar.

Luna Gale is playing through March 13 at the Sol Theatre, 3333 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Tickets sell for $45, and $50 for Sunday matinees. Thursday preview, Friday and Saturday evenings are an 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. Log on to www.bocastage.net or call 561-447-8829.

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