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Theatre in Review: The Gravedigger's Lullaby (The Actor's Company Theatre/Theatre Row)

Jeremy Beck, Ted Koch. Photo: Marielle Solan

Few playwrights, in my experience, have made such a head-swiveling change in approach between their debut and sophomore works as Jeff Talbott. He first turned up in 2011 with The Submission, an acid, wisecracking comedy about race and show business, which, despite an impossibly shaky premise, contained a number of crackling scenes. The Gravedigger's Lullaby is a solemn, slow-paced working-class tragedy that could have been written in 1947. It might take place in that year, as well; the program only says that the play is set "on the edge of the city," and the time frame is "not now. Before." Talbott himself is also agnostic about this. In the production notes, he writes, "If the play is set after the dawn of electricity," the lead character's home "is lit by a single bare bulb; if not, by candles." I guess you choose your era and you take your chances.

As far as I can tell, Jenn Thompson's production unfolds sometime in the first third of the twentieth century. The gravedigger of the title is Baylen, who lives in squalor with his rather younger wife, Margot, and their infant daughter. As rendered in Wilson Chin's set design, the family inhabits a tiny cabin with "rooms" demarcated by hanging blankets. This is an especially unaccommodating setup since they have no respite from the baby's seemingly endless crying. The marriage is filled with sparring, driven by their desperate circumstances. Margot doesn't like it when Baylen comes home after dark -- but, since he is paid by the grave, he keeps working to the last possible moment. Talbott hasn't lost his gift for terse, telling changes. Tasting the dinner Margot made for him, Baylen asks, "How was it when it was hot?" "Hotter," she replies, putting an end to that conversation.

Baylen, who, despite his occasionally rough mouth, is a committed Christian, has a friend in Gizzer, a fellow gravedigger, who is given to drinking and running around. However, when a well-dressed young man starts passing through the cemetery, apparently taking his daily constitutional, Gizzer turns rabidly hostile. He recognizes this interloper as Charles Timmens, heir to Taylor and Timmens Mercantile; Gizzer's father, who worked there, died when a fifty-pound bag of flour landed on him. Charles' walks are an attempt, for a little while at least, to get away from the dying father who has always dominated him and whose legacy he isn't particularly interested in inheriting. In a scene that builds to a satisfying fury, Baylen is deaf to the young man's complaints, reminding him that the world is full of people who have no idea when they will next eat. Charles savagely denounces "the sad, sad song of the poor man," adding, "There's an open mouth on every street corner -- 'Help me eat, help keep me alive' -- and they keep asking for more and more when what they should be asking for, what they should be begging for, is a job."

This confrontation, which ends badly, returns to haunt Baylen when, on the day Charles' father is being buried, the now-desperate gravedigger begs the younger man for a job. Charles, pathetically unsure of himself behind his cultivated facade and still smarting from the memory of Baylen's stinging words, says he cannot have workers who don't respect him. Before the scene is over, Baylen will get down on his knees to plead his case. As performed by Ted Koch (Baylen) and Jeremy Beck (Charles), it is a searing depiction of a man humbling himself before another, and it drew gasps from the audience at the performance I attended.

As it happens, this is the first step on a road that begins in hope and quickly ends in disaster, precipitating a finale that would be even more wrenching if The Gravedigger's Lullaby were better constructed. The bones of great drama are there, but the execution is stolid and sluggish, a problem sometimes exacerbated by Thompson's direction. The action flares in fiery one-on-one arguments, only to lapse into scenes that repeat what we already know. Also, in attempting to create a drama along classical lines, the playwright has avoided any details that would ground the action in a specific, recognizable reality. Similarly, the characters are so lacking in shading that they might as well be figures in a frieze or a D. W. Griffith two-reeler: the poor, but proud, laborer; his staunchly supportive wife; and the weak-willed scion of wealth.

Still, whenever the actors get an opportunity, they seize it with gusto. In addition to Koch and Beck, who are exemplary, KK Moggie stuns as Margot, who makes strikingly clear that she is every bit as tough as her husband. (When he angrily asks if she is willing to sit in a firetrap clothing factory, with the baby at her side -- as she proposes -- for a couple more pennies a week, she replies "If it gets us one single cent closer to solid food for her on a Tuesday, then yes, I am" -- and you understand that this is a mating of equally strong wills.) In an especially remarkable -- and nearly wordless -- sequence, Margot and Baylen frantically try to have sex without waking the baby, an effort that ends badly, with Margot crying out in anguish. Todd Lawson provides excellent support as Gizzer, whose hatred of the Timmens family ultimately leads to Baylen's downfall.

Chin's set features a complicated ground plan that makes room for both Baylen's house and place of work, which can't have been easy to work out; the lighting designer, Matthew Richards, provides a series of evocative daytime and nighttime looks. Given the general vagueness of the play's time frame, Tracy Christensen's costumes -- including a decent dress that Baylen buys Margot when things are, temporarily, looking up -- are solid achievements. Toby Jaguar Algya's sound design provides fine reinforcement for Will Van Dyke's sorrowful original music as well such effects as birdsong and those nerve-wracking crying-baby sounds.

The Gravedigger's Lullaby is a tough one to pin down -- gripping scene-by-scene yet a little dull in its overall effect, an unsatisfying, yet startlingly different, work from a still-developing playwright who remains highly interesting. And it is staffed by some of the finest actors that this company has at its disposal. And, clearly, Jeff Talbott is a man of many parts. -- David Barbour

(20 March 2017)

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