Luna Gale

Left to right, Sabina Dunn, Adam Harvey, and Peter Chapman

Luna Gale, Adobe Rose Theatre, Jan. 22

The Adobe Rose Theatre opened its doors to business last weekend with an expertly rendered production of Luna Gale, a stage work well worth seeing. Local playgoers must have been in an optimistic frame of mind as they entered the company’s digs, which were recently created out of what was formerly an industrial space. One enters from the parking lot through an unfussy lobby, which houses the ticket desk; and this leads to a cleanly designed, generously proportioned gathering room large enough to accommodate seven tables and a refreshment counter staffed by pleasant people. The experience of arriving is, in a word, inviting.

The audience proceeds into the performing space, which accommodates about 130 viewers. The seating set-up can be reconfigured as desired. For this opening production, it was divided into three sections, each with rows of comfortable chairs ascending from the floor-as-stage on risers steep enough to ensure good sightlines for all. This effectively created if not a “theater in the round” then a “theater in a triangle.” The only negative in the arrangement is that, because the seat bottoms don’t fold up, people seated near the row-ends need to file out to make way for occupants of the middle-ish seats — only a slight inconvenience, really, since each row consists of only about 10 chairs. A grid overhead holds a lighting arrangement that appears basic but probably sufficient for most needs. Access to the central performing space seemed manageable, although personnel needed to squeeze a bit to move stage furniture on and off.

Luna Gale is the work of Rebecca Gilman, a playwright whose pieces tend to touch on matters of social and political justice. It was premiered in 2014 at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and since then has been mounted at a handful of venues from Los Angeles to London. On the face of it, the plot sounds not particularly appealing: An infant (the oddly named Luna Gale) becomes a shuttlecock in a bid for custody that might be decided in favor of her parents (who both struggle with meth addiction) or her maternal grandmother — or, for that matter, might lead to the foster-care system. None of the options seems ideal, but sorting through them is all in a day’s work for social worker Caroline, an old hand at messy familial matters, skilled at making bad situations like this a little better while hewing to the demanding bureaucracy of her government department.

Gilman turns this into an often gripping drama of 14 swiftly flowing scenes that keep Caroline front and center. Sabina Dunn invests this principal part with a winning personality, equal parts social-services professionalism and human empathy. We are on her side as she sorts through what can be done with Luna, and her disarming performance, inhabited by sincerity and even charm, convinces us that she is bound to solve everything in the best possible way. We grow to appreciate that the situation is more than a manila file folder to her. Although her task centers on the Luna problem, she is also trying to untwist the other personalities involved: Luna’s addict-mother (portrayed brutally by Mairi Chanel), consumed with rage against the injustices of her own upbringing; Luna’s meth-addled father (Dylan Thomas Marshall), who projects a core of sweetness despite being such a lost soul; and Luna’s grandmother (Lynn Goodwin), whose earnest generosity grows more and more suspect. Goodwin and Marshall enjoy rich writing in their supporting parts, and both find opportunities to touch viewers’ hearts without stumbling into simple caricature. Caroline is, in a sense, simply a functionary; but, as the grandmother observes at one point, she also bears awesome power. Her evaluations of the family dynamics and the reports she submits to her agency will determine how lives will be lived now and for years to come. Part of the impact of Dunn’s portrayal resides in allowing the audience to glimpse her own evolving self-perception, her realization that she may not — perhaps cannot — always play an impartial role in plotting the course of social justice. Not least of the play’s lessons is that what we may dismiss as a mere appearance of conflict or bias may, in fact, indicate bias itself.

Smaller parts are handled firmly by Adam Harvey (as a smarmy minister), Peter Chapman (as Caroline’s boss), and Jocelyn Montoya (as Lourdes, one of Caroline’s former cases, who is poised for a poster-child life of mounting success). The subplot involving Lourdes seems underdeveloped, and the play, which is perhaps two scenes too long, might be strengthened by excising it; but that falls in Gilman’s bailiwick, and the Adobe Rose production makes of it what it can. Wendy Chapin’s direction yields a realistic production in which all the characters come across as credible, and the secondary parts are calibrated to support, rather than compete with, Dunn’s starring role. Sets and costumes hew to the simple and everyday, with the settings expanded through screens, onto which are projected images that would be the everyday decorations of a social services environment, such as file cabinets, vending machines, and children’s drawings.

Anybody who starts up a theater company in Santa Fe must do so with eyes wide open. It is no secret that the bones of deceased theater groups are buried all over town, and that the perennial inability to sustain a professional troupe is the chief embarrassment of a community that supports the other performing arts with extraordinary enthusiasm. With an inaugural play that forges bravely into tough territory, Adobe Rose gives cause for arts lovers to hope that things may work out better this time. — James M. Keller

“Luna Gale” runs through Feb. 6 at Adobe Rose Theatre, 1213-B Parkway Drive, 505-780-5865. 

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