KK Moggie and Ted Koch Photo Credit: Marielle Solan
By Ron Cohen
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row
410 West 42nd