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
While I grant that culture depicted here is relatively unknown to me, I don’t for a minute attribute my opinion of the play’s success to novelty. Author Quiara Alegria Hudes’s detailed, multicultural characterization and unexpected plot lines make the bar setting an apt canvas rather than a cliché. There isn’t a false, pandering, or extra word. The piece is lively, humorous, dramatic and affecting.
Hudes, it should be noted, won a Pulitzer Prize for Water by the Spoonful and wrote the book for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights. The latter was directed by Thomas Kail, responsible for both Hamilton and this new work.
Daphne’s North Philly Bar/Lounge is the kind of old fashioned, neighborhood watering hole patronized by family and odd ducks for whom the place is a second home. Sentences begun by one are finished by others, jokes are “in”, history is shared. Owned by its grounded, wry, Puerto-Rican namesake (Vanessa Aspillaga), as is the rundown building housing questionable tenants, Daphne’s welcomes a core of regulars including:
Vanessa Aspillaga and Matt Saldivar
Struggling artist, Pablo (Matt Saldivar), currently a dumpster-diver in service of paintings depicting the discard of people’s lives; Jenn (KK Moggie), a passionate and literally colorful activist with a self avowed ‘Messiah Complex,’; and, Rey (Gordon Joseph Weiss), a middle-aged, hippie motorcyclist who picks up physical labor to support his travels- though completely credible, the least well realized participant. Daphne’s sister Inez (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who married a community-minded, up-and-coming businessman and her husband Acosta (Carlos Gomez) are also omnipresent. These two are economically better off and geographically better situated, yet loyal and generous.
Vanessa Aspillaga and Samira Wiley
When an upstairs apartment is raided by police and DEA who cart off drugs, guns and its inhabitants, the tenants’ 11 year-old daughter, Ruby (Samira Wiley), jumps out a window. She’s found, bruised and cowering, behind the building. Daphne first shelters then reluctantly adopts the emotionally broken girl, but, in essence, Ruby acquires six parents. Over a period of 17 years, framed by the Ruby’s informing us how old she is at the start of each scene, fates, relationships, and some personalities radically alter.
Jenn, whom Ruby identifies as her only honest friend (Jenn has no boundaries), grows increasingly more radical and then unhinged in her attempts to raise awareness about the state of the world. Both Ruby and Daphne develop strong, unforseen bonds with her. Acosta rises in politics eventually yielding to proffered temptations, risking his marriage. Ruby becomes a smart, enthusiastic student, yet her underpinnings are shakier than what’s publicly apparent; she eventually makes a surprising choice. Painful secrets about Daphne and Inez indirectly relate to Ruby. Pablo achieves a kind of fame, yet stays his course. Rey is Rey.
Daphne Rubin-Vega and Vanessa Aspillaga
At an hour forty-five with no intermission, one never feels restless. Director Thomas Kail keeps flow consistent and smooth. Lights dim; evocative piano music by Michel Camilo is heard with such pristine clarity it seems to get inside one (Sound Design – Nevin Steinberg), an efficient swarm of stagehands adjust Donyale Werle’s splendid, weathered Set.
Physical acting adds insight. Pablo is graceful in his skin, while Jenn’s natural eurhythmy seems provoked. Daphne is always aware of gravity. Acosta carries himself with calm confidence. Inez moves in spurts. Ruby is defensive. Ray lolls. Kail serves a cast who knows how to listen, utilizing his staging area with authenticity and creativity. Small business illuminates, the creation of banners and tending to a symbolic plant work particularly well. A parentheses of dancing captivates.
Matt Saldivar, Samira Wiley, Carlos Gomez, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gordon Joseph Weiss
Costume Design (and, one presumes, wigs) by Toni-Leslie James suit place, people, period, and status. Representation of Pablo’s artfully insouciant combinations and Jenn’s various off-the-wall ensembles is inspired.
Vanessa Aspillaga’s Daphne bears a palpable undercurrent of emotion and power that serves as ballast. When she briefly erupts later in the piece, disclosure has all the more effect.
KK Moggie first manifests Jenn as an insubstantial, well meaning spirit, then shepherds her evolution into someone obsessed. The actress might be a bit more frightening.
Carlos Gomez (Acosta) exudes sympathetic warmth and masculinity. Daphne Rubin-Vega (Inez), a thoroughly appealing Matt Saldivar (Pablo), and Gordon Joseph Weiss (Rey) feel completely genuine.
Samira Wiley’s Ruby is always sure the earth will open up beneath her feet. Wisely the actress delivers an unaffected 11 year-old. As the character grows to maturity, Wiley increasingly lets her inhabit her skin. This includes subtle signs of increased alcohol use and volatility. Well performed.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Gordon Joseph Weiss, Matt Saldivar, KK Moggie, Samira Wiley
Signature Theatre presents
Daphne’s Dive by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Directed by Thomas Kail
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre in The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through June 12, 2016