|Mary Beth Fisher as social worker Caroline Cox in Luna Gale, |
giving just about the best stage performance I saw in 2014.
Rebecca Gilman is a master playwright, but my experiences of her plays usually involve admiration and irritation in equal measure. Luna Gale is gripping, funny, suspenseful, and overall finely tuned, but its treatment of its fundamentalist characters bothered me in a way that I can't really let go of. The audience didn't seem to share my frustration; the Hollywood Reporter review by Jordan Riefe gets at what I'm talking about so well I wonder if we saw the show on the same night--
There's no doubt who the bad guys are in Luna Gale, a play that had liberals from L.A.'s west side hooting when Caroline turns the tables on her right-wing Christian antagonists.In fact the audience during my performance started groaning knowingly during the religious grandmother's very first mention of her own faith. Are we really so cynical that the first time a character mentions having religious beliefs, we assume she's a moron or a monster?
One could argue that Gilman wasn't really soliciting that reaction from the audience; the audience brings what it brings, and it would play differently elsewhere than Culver City. But using a world weary social worker as an intro to the religious obstructionists in her play limits our ability to empathize with these characters. (Quick, incomplete plot summary: the fundamentalist grandmother uses her manipulative preacher friend to help her keep her granddaughter out of her drug-addict daughter's care.) And yes, the script does explore all the characters' good intentions and moral failures, and that's a big part of what the play is about. But it also careens into implausibility when the social worker's boss reveals himself as a closet Christian and colludes with the grandmother's preacher to influence the situation. The unethical behavior displayed by these people makes for some thrilling dramaturgy in the howler of a scene Riefe refers to above, but it's either too dramatically good to be believed, or it betrays an extremely low opinion of the religious characters and their actions.
All this is followed by two monologues that add up to a sentiment so on-the-nose it produced my only groan during the play. The specifics escape me, but the meth addict mother describes being high in a lengthy reverie that's echoed in another scene by a religious character delivering the same type of speech about a relationship with Christ. Opiate of the masses and all that. Got it. Thanks.
I'm not about to defend fundamentalist Christian zealots, especially the ones who use politics to advance their moral agendas. But I also -- and this is where the play inspired me -- want to challenge the easy, modern, secular assumption that people who are religious are automatically worthy of suspicion. I've already had to address it in a play I've written with a minister character in it. My stage directions describe him as ethical and every time I've had an actor read it I have to tell the guy, "He's not creepy." I get that there's plenty of reason to jump to these conclusions, but this all got me so worked up that I think all this may be something to explore in my own writing.