Though time and place are undetermined, we’re on familiar terrain. The shack is poor by any standard: a basin serves as sink, there’s no apparent toilet, patched fabric curtains create rooms, one old table, two chairs, and a cabinet act as kitchen/living room/dining room. There’s a bucket to hold baby’s waste before it’s dumped and a bucket to keep bread from the mice. Designer Wilson Chin’s rough, cutaway structure with evocative staging levels feels viscerally bleak. (A hole in the floor creating the grave out of which Baylen shovels dirt and rocks and a long ramp evoking a hill, work splendidly.)
Ted Koch and KK Moggie
When Baylen (Ted Koch), a grave digger, comes home late, his wife Margot (KK Mogie) gets out of bed to serve him cold stew. Face almost in the bowl, he reaches for her. She pulls away, telling Baylen he’s filthy. He says she smells like wash on the line. They’re direct, a bit harsh, but devoted to one another. Then the baby wakes and wails. Stress comes to a nightly head. The couple argue. Daily existence is a struggle.
Gizzer (Todd Lawson) is also grave digger. He and Baylen eat lunch together, feet dangling into a newly dug site. One infers Baylen got his junior the job. Gizzer regularly engages in the kind of let-off-steam bar fights necessary to his volatile nature and complains for lack of his friend’s company.
Ted Koch and Todd Lawson
One day, a well heeled young man in suit and hat appears in the cemetery. Gizzer is immediately hostile and, vocally disparaging, ignores his request for directions. Baylen doesn’t understand. It turns out the stranger is Charles Timmons (Jeremy Beck) son of the ailing owner of The Merck, whom Gizzer holds responsible for his father’s death on the loading dock. (The company did nothing to help the large family robbed of its breadwinner.) It’s all Baylen can do to keep his friend from physical attack.. With even temper and perspective, he points Timmons on his corrected way, inadvertently intriguing him. The die is cast.
Jeremy Back and Ted Koch
Margot and Baylen can’t make ends meet. He insists on managing things and demeans himself to try to secure a somewhat better, but compromising situation. Gizzer will hate it.
Playwright Jeff Talbot’s character portraits are terrific. Baylen’s pride and religious faith, Timmons’ raging ambivalence about class differences and need of a sympathetic father figure, Margot’s striking, clear-eyed love and wonderfully clever methods of communicating with her husband, and Gizzer’s well aimed tirades are well written, beautifully manifest specifics that keep the stereotypical at bay.
More than once we expect someone to be violently murdered. The Grave Digger’s Lullaby features pain, sacrifice, determination and commitment under grim, untenable circumstances, yet its overriding message is one of the persistence of human spirit.
KK Moggie and Ted Koch
Ted Koch’s powerful portrayal of Baylen, wrestling with a seemingly hopeless situation, excavates feeling from the actor’s gut making every action personal. Anguish, resolution, and a single moment of joy, all seem authentic. We empathize rather than sympathize.
Todd Lawson’s Gizzard shocks with the extent of hate transparently coursing through the character’s system. He lashes out with utter honesty.
Jeremy Back internalizes Timmon’s thoughts so thoroughly, he vibrates.
KK Moggie imbues her Margot with innate intelligence, grace and forbearance.
Director Jenn Thompson does a marvelous job of defining her characters, right down to the way they carry themselves. Unplaceable southern accents are pitch perfect. Anger vibrates, a sex scene is coarse and sizzling, an entirely believable, rough and tumble fight makes one imagine nightly bruises. Actors take time to think and react. Horrible realizations are made palpable. Pacing of this intermissionless piece is just right.
Will Van Dyke contributes fine, dark, particularly atmospheric music.
Matthew Richards Lighting Design is cinematic.
Photos by Marielle Sloan
Opening: Ted Koch and Todd Lawson
TACT – The Actors Company Theatre presents
The Grave Diggers’s Lullaby by Jeff Talbott
Directed by Jenn Thompson
Through April 1, 2017
The Beckett Theatre
410 West 42nd Street