'Luna Gale'

Will Hart and Rachel Hindman play Peter and Karlie, teenage drug addicts who are accused of neglecting their baby, in 5th Wall Theatre’s “Luna Gale.”

“Who do you belong to?” You could wait all your life for the answer to that simple question posed near the end of 5th Wall Theatre’s production of “Luna Gale.”

But if grown-ups have the power of choice to help make our lives whole, what about little Luna, a baby born to methamphetamine-addicted teenagers and caught between a dysfunctional family and the government agency charged with protecting the helpless and innocent?

“Luna Gale,” Rebecca Gilman’s workmanlike portrait of duty and denial, drops us into this sober, anxious standoff and presents us with a compelling, if merely functional, narrative of the grim tug-of-war over one child’s destiny.

Dehydrated and ailing when her addled parents Peter and Karlie (Will Hart and Rachel Hindman) bring her to a hospital emergency room, baby Luna is assigned to social worker Caroline Cox (Gina McKenzie), who opens a case to determine proper protective custody.

Karlie’s exhausted but well-meaning mother Cindy (Lisa Kotula) seems the logical choice until Caroline detects a strain of religious extremism in her demeanor, egged on by Cindy’s evangelical pastor, Jay (Bostin Christopher).

This season’s first entry in the annual Acts of Faith theater festival, “Luna Gale” examines how human absolutism can compromise human caring and how loneliness and grief, soothed by religion, can lead to denial and bad judgment.

Caroline senses that Cindy’s focus on heavenly love might be shielding family secrets that could get in the way of her caretaker duties. Soon, Caroline concocts a plan to discredit the grandmother so that human service authorities will grant Luna to her birth parents.

It’s a timeworn — and increasingly suspect — social welfare rubric: keep families together at all costs. It’s also a tip-off that “Luna Gale,” while eager to shine light on how faith might stand at the crossroads between choice and happenstance, suffers from a clunky and naïve script that fails to deliver the emotion that might take us inside a story of major human disappointment and desperation.

Perhaps seeing that the story of “Luna Gale” relies too much on arcane policy twists and subplots that only distract from Luna’s plight (Kaelie James plays a conflicted ward of the state and Chandler Hubbard’s office supervisor clashes with Caroline over rules and regulations), director Daniel Moore opts for an understated, naturalistic tone for his actors.

But the low-key approach serves only to keep the acting heat on simmer and, as the script reaches wildly for every scrap of dysfunction it can find in the story, “Luna Gale” strays from the central plight of Karlie and Peter, the most furtive, halting and compelling characters in the show.

Jeff Clevenger’s three-part set does a good job evoking home, office and ER, yet the RVA Event Space at Plant Zero does “Luna Gale” few favors as the venue swallows up Austin Smith’s sound design and limits lighting designer Erin Barclay’s choices and placements.

As Gilman’s script slowly peels back layer upon layer of personal frustration and revelation to make a path for Luna, the play’s crescendo leaves us more curious and attentive than deeply moved.

Here before us we see every chamber of the great, beating human heart, yet the only heart “Luna Gale” manages to break is its own.

Contact Tony Farrell at tlcoryell@aol.com.

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