A Shrinking Theater

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Okay, I know between work, holiday parties, and gift shopping there's really no time to think about theater but if you're a lover of good acting, subtle directing, and crafty playwrighting the Goodman Theater has a little early Christmas present for you.

Luna Gale, the latest from playwright Rebecca Gilman, has been transplanted from Chicago - cast and all - and is currently playing at the Kirk Douglas Theater.

Luna Gale of the title is baby Luna and the story swirls around her. You see, her young unmarried parents, Karlie and Cliff, smoked a little meth and Luna ended up in the emergency room. But it's not what you think - they really love her . . . I think. Well, Luna ends up with Caroline who's with child protective services. She wants to save every child but her case load is insane and she's just trying to cut through the red tape. That leaves Luna with her grandma who's a nurse and - with the grace of god - will save Luna.

That's the setup and, while the overarching question of the play "What's best for this little girl?" is ever-present, the answers are wonderfully complicated. Playwright Rebecca Gilman masterfully writes into the audience's expectation and then twists them. The character arcs are more like roller coasters and each scene has a new revelation of character that has you rethinking the moral calculus involved.

The play originally premiered at the Goodman Theater in Chicago last January. The outstanding cast and production team has come along under the nuanced direction of the Goodman's longtime artistic director Robert Falls.

While we in LA constantly cast about for exactly what LA theater looks like - reimagined or not - Chicago theater is a respected, known brand. Luna Gale falls squarely into that cliché: excellent, committed acting and characters who are nowhere close to glamourous.

Classically, this play would have been a Taper show: its politics decidedly liberal; its outcome fundamentally redemptive. But instead of playing to 750 seats, why is it playing to just over 300? Now, the easiest answer is that it's a proscenium show. It's got a turntable set that wouldn't work on the Taper thrust. But lord knows it wouldn't have been the first proscenium show that was shoe-horned into the Taper. Downsizing this play is a cautionary tale for LA theater. If a play of this caliber no longer commands the Taper stage we're in trouble.

Recently Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater who long ago worked at the Taper, said,

"You have this regional, non-profit theater movement that is simultaneously becoming more commercial and also less financially feasible for its artists. It's actually the worst of both worlds that is happening. I envision it is going to be a very tough next generation for the American theater."

The American theater's loss is your gain. You'll have a tough time finding a show this good in a space this intimate. Go see Luna Gale. And don't forget to support your favorite non-profit theater this season. They really need your help!

Luna Gale plays at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City through December 21.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.

(L-R) Mary Beth Fisher, Richard Thieriot and Erik Hellman in the Goodman Theatre world premiere production of Rebecca Gilman's Luna Gale. (Craig Schwartz)