A dedicated but exhausted social worker is at the heart of Rebecca Gilman’s “Luna Gale,” on stage at Seattle Repertory Theatre through March 27.

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Rebecca Gilman is one of very few modern playwrights who can master issue-oriented dramas in the social realist mode pioneered by Henrik Ibsen.

Her recent award-winner “Luna Gale,” now on view at Seattle Repertory Theatre, depicts a brave, flawed individual breaking the rules to do a right thing. But in meaningful fictions, as in life, right and wrong are not always self-evident.

The heroine of “Luna Gale,” played with total conviction by Pamela Reed, is not glamorous. Nearing retirement and inches from burnout after 25 years on the job, Caroline is an Iowa social worker tasked with deciding who should raise an infant taken into protective custody after the baby’s young parents failed to seek prompt medical attention for her.

THEATER REVIEW

‘Luna Gale’

by Rebecca Gilman. Through March 27 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center. Tickets from $17. (206-443-2222 or seattlerep.org).

Gilman’s plain-spoken script rises above more simplistic slices of social realism, thanks to the well-turned dialogue, the sardonic wisecracks that get Caroline through her day, and some twisty turns of plot unmasking characters’ hidden baggage and agendas.

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Social workers are rarely portrayed on stage and films as anything other than instruments of unfeeling bureaucracies. “Luna Gale” reminds you of what a thankless but essential job they do, with only the equivalent of watered-down Elmer’s Glue to patch cracks and fissures in a dysfunctional society.

On one side of the custodial tug of war over baby Luna Gale are her screwed-up teenage parents, gentle Peter and defiant Karlie, a pair vividly embodied by Drew Highlands and Hannah Mootz.

Pulling hard from the other side are Karlie’s mother, Cindy (Anne Allgood), and her ally, Pastor Jay (Adrian LaTourelle). A churchgoer with a steady job, a neat home and a clean record, Cindy has written off Karlie as a lost cause. Now she’s determined to raise Luna.

The choice is a no-brainer, right?

Not for Caroline, who can spot a meth addict, a religious fanatic and a victim of abuse — and all apply here — when she sees one. And gut instinct is one of the tools of her trade.

While Cindy may be the most stable option, her apocalyptic, aggressively evangelical Christian views trouble Caroline. Maybe Luna’s parents deserve a chance to get their act together and reunite with their baby. Caroline’s smug supervisor and saboteur, Cliff (Alex Matthews), disagrees.

With a court date looming, Caroline takes matters into her own hands.

“Luna Gale” staggers a bit in Act 2, under a pile of topical maladies that also include alcoholism, suicide and red tape. Director Braden Abraham sets a restrained tone that fends off melodrama. And Michael Ganio’s sets glide with ease between institutional offices and modest homes — though seeming almost too glossy for the grim, revolving-door life millions of needy people are trapped in.

Although jaded and drained, Caroline forges on, despite a crippling caseload and a tattered safety net. When there’s a long waiting list for drug rehab, Caroline tells her client, “There just isn’t any help out there. As soon as I find some, I’ll get it for you!”

Her goal is to help people succeed “long enough to have a life … just a life.” But even for one of her cherished success stories, a former foster kid (Pilar O’Connell) heading to college, that’s a tall order.

Between bursts of energy, Reed is a study in shoulder-slumping weariness and deadpan affect. It’s a bold performance, bordering on flatness. But it makes the fleeting glimpses of the warm, humane woman Caroline is at heart, despite her own past and the misery that surrounds her, more poignant.

Though “Luna Gale” ends on a note of uncertainty, Caroline has done what she can for a vulnerable innocent. And if she offers us more candor than comfort, so does Gilman’s thoughtful play.