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The Gravedigger’s Lullaby

 KK Moggie and Ted Koch                         Photo Credit: Marielle Solan


                                                             By Ron Cohen


The Gravedigger’s Lullaby sounds like it could be one of those Z-Grade horror flicks filling the multiplexes. It does have one genuinely horrific moment, but Jeff Talbott’s new drama is a thoughtful and articulate depiction of those subsisting on the bottom rungs of society. Brought to life in an appreciative production by TACT (The Actors Company Theatre), it tells a compassionate and pertinent story of people who, within the harsh circumstances of their existence, can still find, by the final fadeout, an affirmation of life.


Baylen, the gravedigger of the title, gets a “handful of pennies” for each grave he digs in the town cemetery. The lunches and conversations he shares with his younger co-worker, Gizzer, provide some respite. But it’s back-breaking work, and Baylen wonders how long he’ll be able to keep doing it and provide for his wife, Margot, and their infant daughter. Margot adds to their meager finances by taking in laundry, but it means that the solace he seeks at night with her is tempered by her exhaustion. Even more, it’s invaded by the insistent crying of their baby.


The tale moves into gear with the appearance in the cemetery of a young, well-dressed man, Charles Timmens, looking for the burial site purchased for his dying father. Charles is the scion of the town’s rich merchant family. Gizzer is immediately belligerent; his father was killed without a shred of recompense in a workplace accident while working for the Timmens store. Charles, who faces his

role as head of the business uncertainly, senses a connection with the older, sympathetic Baylen. The two strike up a relationship – a give-and-take between a have and have-not -- that takes several gripping turns before the play runs its course.



Director Jenn Thompson has staged Talbot’s work with both theatrical savvy and an open heart, guiding her four actors into beautifully drawn portrayals. Ted Koch’s Baylen gives the play a strong moral center, enriched with intellect, humor, and when things go badly, a despair that borders on classic tragedy. He is also a strong physical presence. When you see him at labor, slamming at the dirt to break it up and shovel it away, you can feel the sweat. There’s something heroic about it, too.


As Charles, Jeremy Beck convincingly balances the self-doubts of a young man being forced into new and unwanted responsibility, against a reflexive, inbred sense of superiority. Todd Lawson is a lively Gizzer, whose carefree attitude turns to white heat with his hatred for Charles and his clan, while KK Moggie touchingly evinces Margot’s love for Baylen, even when the hardscrabble nature of her days makes her churlish.


Set in an indeterminate but no-so-distant past, The Gravedigger’s Lullaby often takes on the mood of a parable or fable, unfolding on the darkly atmospheric unit set designed by Wilson Chin. As in a fable, the plotting may seem at times to rely too heavily on happenstance. However, when the antagonism of Talbott’s laborers toward those in power overflows, his play vibrates with an up-to-the-minute resonance that overcomes any dramaturgical nitpicking.


Jeremy Beck and Ted Koch


In a climactic scene, Baylen proudly refuses a wad of cash as tip money from Charles for helping at his father’s burial. But then Baylen piteously pleads with the young man for a job that’s better than digging graves, and we get a harrowing look into the oft-analyzed psyches of the well-meaning but desperate working-class voters who are said to have shaped last fall’s Presidential election.


Finally, it’s worth noting that the show marks a milestone for TACT, an actor-driven company launched nearly 25 years ago and known for its eclectic assortment of revivals. The Gravedigger’s Lullaby is the first play out of the company’s six-year-old new play development program to be given a full-scale TACT production. It’s a fine choice.


Off-Broadway play

Playing at the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row

410 West 42nd Street


Playing until April 1