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A Custody Fight Lights a Fire in "Luna Gale" at the Cleveland Play House

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Many people have been shocked in recent months to learn that serious drug addiction has become prevalent, and even virulent, in Ohio's middle-class suburban and rural communities, as well as many other locations far from big urban centers. This is what happens when funds for social agencies, such as child welfare and drug programs, are slashed in a misguided attempt to balance state budgets on the backs of the "little people."

Well, there are some little people confronting big problems in Luna Gale, now at the Cleveland Play House. This intriguing and complex play by Rebecca Gilman takes a very personal look at drug addiction and foster care, how critical decisions are made, and how lives on all sides of the issue can be shattered. Even though the performances are not uniformly excellent, under the direction of Austin Pendleton, the intelligence and credibility of Gilman's script shines forth.

It all starts with two meth-heads, Karlie and Peter, who are busy coming down from their highs in an emergency room waiting area. They've brought in their baby with a gastrointestinal problem. But they soon have bigger troubles once the social worker on duty, Caroline, sees Peter passed out and Karlie vibrating at 10,000 rpm. Caroline informs the beginning meth addicts (they haven't lost their teeth yet) that they will have to prove their ability to care for the child before they get baby Luna Gale back.

This sets the stage for a cascading series of complications as an exhausted, overworked and cynical Caroline tries to wend her way through possible solutions. At first, she thinks she has a ready-made answer when she visits Karlie's estranged mother Cindy and learns that Cindy is more than willing to serve as a "kinship" caregiver for the child. Caroline thinks that, once she gets her passive-aggressive supervisor Cliff to agree, it will be easy sailing.

Not so fast. As the short scenes in this two-hour, one-act show progress, Caroline observes that Karlie and Peter are not actually the wasteoids she initially thought they were. The young parents are trying to pull their shit together, but they keep running into roadblocks since the drug rehab facilities have long waiting lists. Meanwhile, Caroline learns that Cindy is a fervent evangelical Christian and wants to obtain permanent custody of Luna Gale, against her daughter's wishes.

This is all played out on designer Michael Schweikardt's cluttered set. It's cluttered because the elements of six separate locations are pushed together across the proscenium, with the supporting braces for the flats visible and with no clear delineations between one set and another. It's an intellectually interesting, if less than visually pleasing, scenic concept for the play. It works nicely when the actors borrow bits and pieces of one set while playing in another. However, director Pendleton has his characters, especially Caroline, glance at the other sets and the people in them during dialogue sequences, and that can be distracting.

Overall, this staging emphasizes how all the characters are in the same boat, and that boat is sinking. In the second hour, the situation gets even more desperate when, during a meeting at her office, Caroline appears to be coerced to pray with Cindy's pastor Jay and Cliff (turns out, Cliff is a born-again buddy of the pastor). And to top it off, Caroline learns bad news regarding a former client, Lourdes, who recently aged out of the foster care system.

Indeed, there are many facets in Luna Gale, and they aren't all addressed with equal success. But the cast, for the most part, is up to the challenge. Megan King is a jittery bundle of torched nerves as Karlie, and Jeremiah Clapp gives Peter a game attitude once he fully awakens from his meth coma. As Cindy, Angela Pierce is a true believer of the first order, and Kenneth Lee's Cliff is exactly as frustrating as you'd expect him to be. As pastor Jay, Donald Carrier wisely doesn't default to a Bible-thumper stereotype, giving his character more dimensions.

In the central role of Caroline, Lee Roy Rogers has the perfect flatline affect of a person beat down by bureaucracy. And she often triggers some mordant chuckles with her downbeat asides. But in addition to some line troubles, Rogers seems not entirely engaged in the pivotal scene where she is prayed over by Cliff and the pastor, blurring her motives in that moment. In the small role of Lourdes, Athena Colon's bubbly approach needs a bit more nuance, given what's to come.

The best part of Luna Gale is that it's actually about something important: It's not just another play with comically dysfunctional people working on conflicts with no consequences. The stakes in this play are high and the characters, for the most part, feel real and significant.

Luna Gale

Through March 20 at the Cleveland Play House 1407 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, clevelandplayhouse.com

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