Luna Gale, Hampstead Theatre, London — review

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God, isn’t it hell being a liberal? That never-ending obligation to see both sides of the issue. Caroline, the protagonist of Rebecca Gilman’s latest play, is a social worker in Iowa tasked with assigning the baby Luna of the title either to her teenage drug addict parents or her health-worker maternal grandmother. Crystal meth or Christianity: it would seem a no-brainer. But when the parents are genuinely cleaning up and Gran is the kind of obsessive Christian who cares far more about the next world than this one; when she sets out, moreover, to gain permanent custody of Luna, fighting daughter Karlie just when she most needs support. And when Caroline is also battling both her own prejudices and those of her officious boss . . . well, it all gets rather fraught.

Director Michael Attenborough and his cast admirably refuse to incline either way: it’s impossible for the viewer to sympathise with any character without recognising that such a stance necessitates discounting a dollop of serious unpleasantness. Sharon Small’s Caroline, at the centre of it all, confronts both her own past suffering and her resultant inclination to be less than impartial; Rachel Redford, so good in Closer at the Donmar a few months ago, is a wholly convincing mess as Karlie; Corey Johnson is the kind of pastor who is all superficial caring but doesn’t even listen to his own words, and has a moment of wince-inducingly ironic platitudinising.

Gilman really has crafted a classic, multiple-bind case of liberal guilt. Caroline is clearly the focus, however flawed, struggling to do her best “but there are so many of you and you just keep coming”. In the face of such a never-ending burden, does one give up the rest of one’s life or give up caring? She almost becomes a cartoon of the archetypal bleeding heart.

The playwright deliberately withholds the solidarity which would relieve such empathetic feelings in us; there’s no let-up, either, for those who would just cut the Gordian knot and have done with it one way or the other, but then they don’t need it.

To July 18, hampsteadtheatre.com

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