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A CurtainUp Review
The Gravedigger's Lullaby
Set in a rural community in North America, The Gravedigger's Lullaby concerns Baylen (Ted Koch), the middle-aged gravedigger of the title, and his younger wife, Margot (KK Moggie). The two are a good match but, since the birth of a daughter, the harmony of their marriage has been undermined by household anxieties. Baylen's wages, combined with the money Margot makes taking in laundry, aren't keeping the family above subsistence; and the burden of a restive, colicky baby has taken an emotional toll on both spouses.
Talbott hasn't specified the era in which the play takes place, indicating merely that the time is: "Not now. Before." The stage directions in his script say that it may be either before or after "the dawn of electricity."
In the TACT production, Tracy Christensen's utilitarian costumes are the most prominent indicators of chronology. The clothes, particularly Margot's garb, suggest the Great Depression but, like Wilson Chin's set design for the couple's hardscrabble dwelling, they could also represent the Great Recession. With both script and production design sidestepping temporal specificity, the play has a sense of universality that works quite well.
The scenes of this four-character play shift between the shack in which Baylen and Margot live and the cemetery where Baylen and his boyhood friend Gizzer (Todd Lawson) are employed. The fourth character, Charles (Jeremy Beck), is a younger man, superior to the other three in the social hierarchy of their small town. The gravediggers encounter him while he's searching for the burial plot in which his dying father will soon be laid. His presence creates emotional turmoil for both gravediggers and leads to conflict which is, for the most part, plausible.
At the beginning of his script the playwright offers a cautionary note for anyone producing The Gravedigger's Lullaby: "Be patient with life in this play. Don't rush through action to get back to dialogue. Let these people eat, fight and love. Plenty of time for talking after."
Director Jenn Thompson has heeded Talbott's advice. Under any circumstances, the spare, believable dialogue would yield four intriguing characters; but Thompson's exquisite collaboration with her actors ensures that what's in the interstices of the dialogue and the silent sequences of the production is poetic, theatrical, and powerful. The blocking of a crucial moment of intimacy between husband and wife, for instance, is vivid, convincing, and filled at once with tender emotion and frustration. Lisa Kopitsky's "fight choreography" lends verisimilitude, even for those in the first rows of the theater, to a drunken confrontation between Baylen and Gizzer. The well-calibrated pace of what the actors do when they're not talking brings a sense of real life, with its ups and downs and moments of stasis, yet keeps things from becoming wearisome for the spectator.
Koch makes Baylen's acute anxieties credible and his frustrations sympathetic. Moggie plays the long-suffering wife with empathy and without cliche. Between the two there's a sense of chemistry which is undiluted despite challenging circumstances. Their scenes together are emotionally intricate and, at times, heartrending. The exchanges between Lawson as the surly Gizzer and Beck as pompous yet needy Charles constitute a living portrait of the social order of the community in which the play is set; and both playwright and actors demonstrate an understanding of the hazards and virtues of small-town existence.
Thompson is a long-time member of TACT's official coterie of artists and was for four years the troupe's Co-Artistic Director. In 2013, she directed a little known William Inge drama, Natural Affection, for the company.(Curtainup's review ). Her attraction to The Gravedigger's Lullaby may be related to her affinity for Inge. Talbott's themes and style call to mind plays by Inge and his mid-century contemporaries, especially Frank D. Gilroy and Horton Foote. There are also moments that recall O'Neill and Williams, pioneers of frank treatment of the once explosive topic of "desire" (whether under the elms or at the terminus of that famous streetcar).
The Gravedigger's Lullaby is a product of newTACTics, the company's ancillary program for new-play development. This production may be a detour from their usual main-stage practice of reviving established works, but Talbott's freshly-minted drama fits solidly in the lineage of older American plays produced by the company in the past.
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The Gravedigger's Lullaby by Jeff Talbott
Director: Jenn Thompson
Cast: Jeremy Beck (Charles Timmens); Ted Koch (Baylen); Todd Lawson (Gizzer); KK Moggie (Margot)
Set Designer: Wilson Chin
Costume Designer: Tracy Christensen
Lighting Designer: Matthew Richards
Sound Designer: Toby Jaguar Algya
Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission
Presented by TACT (The Actors Company Theatre)
Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues)
From 2/28/17; opened 3/12/17; closing 4/1/17
Reviewed by Charles Wright at March 8th press performance
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