Look inward with ‘Luna Gale’ at Dayton Theatre Guild

By Jacqui Theobald

Photo: (l-r) Kayla Graham, Timothy Moore, Cheryl Mellen, Heather Atkinson, and Cassandra Engber perform ‘Luna Gale’ Jan. 20-Feb. 5; photo: K.L. Storer

We make decisions all the time, based on…well, how do we decide what’s trivial or significant? That’s part of the challenge faced by social worker Caroline, played by theatre veteran Cheryl Mellen in the Dayton Theatre Guild’s production of “Luna Gale.” I was able to sit in on the first act.  Caroline has to decide the future of an infant born to a young drug addicted couple; the mom Karlie is played by Kayla Graham and the dad, Peter, by Andrew Poplin. Both are making their Guild debut, but bring theatre experience to their roles.

The two perform around the plot’s driving question: should their baby, Luna Gale, be adopted permanently by her maternal grandmother, Cindy, obsessed with her religion? Veteran local actor Cassandra Engber plays her with conviction, conveying her religious beliefs and allowing her insecurities to emerge. Director Debra Kent has helped the seven-person cast examine their own approach to perceiving and knowing others and in understanding themselves and developing their roles

“I think the audience will also have new insights into self-motivation,” Kent says. “Most of us think we are open-minded and don’t pre-judge because of someone’s appearance, speech, or previous experience. But first opinions may not hold up.”

Tim Moore is Caroline’s boss, Cliff, inexperienced and way too ambitious. Their conflicts erupt in one of many riveting scenes. She has 25 years of experience; he has rules and ego.

Heather Atkinson is 18-year-old Lourdes, recently aged-out of foster care and struggling with the newfound freedom—and she has a reputation that may be too good to be true.

John-Michael Lander is Pastor Jay, Cindy’s advisor, who is working on personifying a sanctimonious delivery with the sort of lines that make your fingernails curl.

Both Poplin and Graham, cast from the twenty-some acting hopefuls who auditioned for the young, tattooed couple, have unadorned skin. Both are cast against type.

Poplin is a recent graduate of Cedarville University’s theatre department.

But wait—the characters are described as covered in tattoos. Yet, to permanently adorn themselves seems to be giving a little too much for the art. Not to worry, costumers are often asked to create the unusual.

Costume designer Kristine Caffrey found temporary tats at Foyes costume shop and spread designs on the counter, seriously considering size, vintage, and color. A clerk kept a watchful but dubious eye on her. Finally, Kristine explains, the clerk, perhaps bitten by a stage bug herself, began to enthusiastically envision just what should be selected.

“The costuming for this play is really challenging, compared to ‘Last Gas’ set in northern Maine that I costumed last season,” Caffrey says, explaining that Caroline has ten changes, some done very quickly to indicate passage of time. Caffrey also described making hair extensions for Karlie, necessary because she needed just the right color of blue.

There are 14 scenes. Scenic Designer Blake Senseman devised two small revolving pieces that account for four locations and can be moved smoothly and fairly quietly. On the open floor of the three-quarter-round stage, a permanent desk indicates an office, and other quickly placed tables and chairs suffice to establish place, unobtrusively. Thanks to the design and direction, the many scenes don’t seem as episodic as they might.

“I didn’t realize what a powerful piece of theatre Rebecca Gilman created, even after I read it several times,” Kent says. “But working with it and with this incredible cast, I saw how strong it is.”

Gilman’s work has mainly focused on social issues. In the last 14 years, she has created “Spinning Into Butter,” “Boy Gets Girl,” and “Glory of Living,” among others, winning numerous honors and prizes along the way.

“Luna Gale” debuted at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 2014 and has been produced regionally. Reviews seem to vary, depending on the strength of the cast and director.

The Theatre Guild production holds a lot of promise. As Caroline, Mellen carries the opportunity to portray a wide range of emotion. In the earlier scenes, she’s stern and judgmental. Over time, she mellows and her own story emerges. She’s oppositional and loudly frustrated with her emotionally needy boss.

Guild newcomer Graham, a Yellow Springs actor, is gut-wrenchingly real as the young wife. She, too, inhabits a range of emotions. She rages; she weeps; she’s both mystified and determined. She’s hopeful and discouraged. It’s a role, rich in challenge, and well inhabited in this production.

Producer and Sound Designer K. L. Storer says, “I see each character in the play as really wanting to do what is in the best interest of the child. But each one has an agenda shaded by individual perspectives.”

Jared Mola is Assistant Director, blocking some scenes, directing a bit, and infusing ideas into the total picture. Tony Fende designs the lighting: his work facilitates the flow of scenes. Deirdre Root is stage manager, the “be everywhere, know everything” role in any production.

Gilman tucks in a few bits of local color: a reference to de-tasseling corn, placing the action in Iowa—and a grammar discussion between Peter and Caroline that reveals the intelligence he tries to hide.

The first act ends with a small cliff hanger… I can’t wait to see Act II.

‘Luna Gale’ takes the stage Friday, Jan. 20–Sunday, Feb. 5 at Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave. in Dayton. For tickets or more information, please call 937.278.5993 or visit

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