“I just want to know that it’s not that I don’t want you to get help, because I do, it’s just that there’s not any help out there”
There’s a moment towards the end of Rebecca Gilman’s 2014 play Luna Gale, directed by Michael Attenborough at the Hampstead, that is just breath-taking. Put-upon social worker Caroline finds herself pressured into praying in her office with a visiting pastor and her religious boss and as the minister lays his hand on her shoulder and offers a deeply seductive account of God’s love, Sharon Small’s deeply conflicted Caroline seems to teeter on the edge of something monumental in an extraordinarily charged moment of drama.
I’d describe it as a shocking moment but that reveals my own prejudices, a distrust of fundamentalist-tinged religion and a sense that such movements prey on easy targets, but in turn that reflects a larger point that Gilman makes in her play. Caroline is dealing with the case of 2 year old Luna Gale, born to teenage meth addicts and though rehousing the child with her grandmother seems the easy option, when she reveals she is deeply religious during a case meeting, Caroline’s instinctive reaction is to roll her eyes and offer a dry remark.
An Iowa-based social worker of 25 years’ experience and most of those horrendously overworked, she’s developed a shorthand for dealing with the vast number of cases she has to deal with, all featuring vulnerable children in desperate need of care. But what seems like common sense, the following of her gut feelings, isn’t always within the rules and with a state-appointed manager overseeing all the cases in the office due to a colleague’s meltdown and government cuts laying waste to support mechanisms, Caroline finds herself having to tread carefully indeed to ensure the best resolution for Luna, as she sees it.
And that’s where Gilman’s play is strongest, in the compassionate obduracy of a 50-something woman determined to do the right thing but unable to see that she’s not always making the right decisions. Small is excellent in showing these flaws, the quick move to judgement – as much as necessity as short-cut when she’s dealing with 90+ cases simultaneously – but never letting us fail to see how deeply, how painfully she feels. We also see her dealing with another case of an older girl transitioning out of foster care into college, a counterpointing experience but ultimately no less entangled.
Alexander Arnold and Rachel Redford are both very good as the young parents struggling to deal with the harsh realities of their world, each finding their own grace under pressure and as the “crazy Christians” as Caroline puts it so clunkingly, Caroline Faber’s Cindy and Corey Johnson’s Pastor Jay occupy a chillingly convincing place of zealous belief. Lucy Osborne’s set has an impressive scale to it, a constant reminder of the overbearing load on social services’ shoulders, but its revolve is laboriously over-used with Attenborough’s scene changes sapping the pace somewhat. Still, Luna Gale makes for an involving drama, impressively free from sentiment about its sensitive subject.