Colin Sphar
Colin Sphar Credit: Liz Lauren

We don’t usually think of social workers as having a great deal of power—”overworked” and “underpaid” are often the first words that spring to mind. But in the system known as child protective services, the opinions and observations of these harried civil servants carry more weight than anyone’s in determining whether parents should be separated from their children. The possibilities for mistakes, blind spots, and biases are numerous, the consequences far-reaching and potentially devastating. The thorny dilemmas raised by investing a mortal with the power to decide fates are the subject of Rebecca Gilman’s gripping new play, Luna Gale, now onstage at Goodman Theatre under the efficient direction of Robert Falls (this is the fourth Gilman script he’s staged).

The title refers to the name of a six-month-old baby who, at the start of the play, has been brought to the hospital with a case of diarrhea and severe dehydration. Her parents are Peter (Colin Sphar) and Karlie (Reyna de Courcy), a pair of 19-year-old meth addicts. In the waiting room, they’re met by Caroline (Mary Beth Fisher), a no-nonsense, clipboard-wielding caseworker who briefly interviews an obviously tweaked-out Karlie and determines that Luna Gale should definitely not go home with her parents. Peter sleeps through the whole thing.

The baby is placed in “kinship care”—sort of like foster care, but with a relative—with Karlie’s mother, Cindy (Jordan Baker). The ultimate goal, Caroline tells her, is to reunite the infant with her parents once they’ve gotten their act together. Cindy, for her part, is a born-again Christian given to dropping remarks about the rapture into casual conversation. Caroline instinctively recoils from this sort of talk, but decides the woman is basically harmless.

Karlie, however, passionately disagrees, making it clear that she wants the baby out of Cindy’s custody as soon as possible. “I don’t want her completely fucked like I was,” she says of her child. To head off that possibility, she and Peter buckle down to getting jobs, drug treatment, and psychological counseling. But just as they’re starting to make headway, Cindy—partly under the sway of her meddlesome pastor (Richard Thieriot)—announces her plan to file for sole custody, setting the judicial machinery in motion to terminate Karlie and Peter’s parental rights.

So where does Luna Gale belong: with the drug addicts or the fanatic? For Caroline, the decision isn’t as agonizing as we might expect. For all her religious skepticism, she has a strong faith of her own—a quasi-mystical, strangely unshakeable belief in whatever her gut tells her, based on 25 years of experience, a wary fondness for the underdog, and a little bit of wishful thinking.

In this case, her gut tells her that the baby belongs with Karlie and Peter. She’s less troubled by Cindy’s piety than by the unfeeling streak she shows in the custody battle. It seems to Caroline that Cindy has chosen God over her own daughter. But Caroline doesn’t get to make the decision on her own, and, indeed, her patronizing new boss (a menacingly chipper Erik Hellman) leans in the opposite direction.

Convinced of her own rightness, Caroline crosses a legal and ethical line, persuading Karlie to manufacture a story about her mother turning a blind eye when Karlie was sexually abused by her stepfather (now out of the picture). If Cindy allowed this to happen to Karlie, the reasoning goes, she’s unfit to raise Luna Gale.

Caroline’s well-meaning but blinkered behavior and its potential to lead to full-scale disaster give the play its tension and moral complexity, and even come close to turning the character into a modern-day tragic hero. Fisher, who has previously played complicated women in Gilman’s Spinning Into Butter and Boy Gets Girl, is riveting as Caroline. At times, she supplies the same sort of obstinacy and righteous anger she displayed to blistering effect in her performance as a frustrated AIDS doctor in TimeLine Theatre Company’s recent revival of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. But she lets us see something else here, too: the kind of bone-weary sadness you’d expect to find in someone who’s spent decades watching families fall apart.

Too bad Gilman lets Caroline off the hook at the end. Through a series of somewhat contrived revelations, we learn that there’s some truth to the story Caroline came up with about Karlie being abused by her stepfather. In other words, Caroline’s gut was on to something all along, which absolves her of any major wrongdoing in the audience’s eyes but also shrinks her self-righteous stubbornness from the size of a tragic flaw to that of an ethical boo-boo. The further we get into the second act, the more we sense the playwright trying to disentangle her main character from a tough spot rather than letting the full implications of the situation play out. Before her authorial presence becomes obtrusive, though, Gilman provides a compelling and compassionate portrait of flawed people making impossible choices.