Fornes Meets O’Neill in Talbott’s Gravedigger’s Lullaby
By Martha Wade Steketee
For the trio of society’s cast-offs at the core of Jeff Talbott’s 90-minute play The Gravedigger’s Lullaby, life is having a pot with barely enough stew, a work day sweating over laundry or digging graves, and an evening enduring an inconsolable baby’s cries. There are believable, deep, layered human stories revealed by playwright and four stalwart performers, honed with subtlety and deliberate pacing Jenn Thompson’s firm directorial hand.
Set in a liminal past (“not now, before”) and an unspecified locale (“the edge of the city”), three characters defined by hard work are framed by one character defined by economic privilege. Second generation grave digger Baylen (Ted Koch) is married to Margot (KK Moggie) and father of an infant child. His work is back breaking but he’s strong and solemn; she is exhausted but committed to her work as a new mom and the washing she takes in to add to the family income. Baylen’s work mate, the funny and tightly wound Gizzer (Todd Lawson), is slightly younger, just as musclebound, and full of rage at the world outside. They joke, make fun of their boss, and wonder about their futures.
The outside world enters this little commune of characters when Charles Timmens (Jeremy Beck) visits the future grave of his mortally ill father. He paces through the graveyard, circumnavigating the theater for some time before he speaks, observed by the workmen without engaging with them. His walk through the graveyard, what the Victorians used to call a Garden of the Dead, seems a bit fraught. He appears to be seeking a location but not seeking solace.
This ratio of privilege hints at the balance of society – three regular folks scraping by react to a rich interloper who tempts, tests, then and ultimately is rebuffed by the morally coherent laborer’s world. Our story asks: who is alive, who has died, what hope lives on?
At first glance, the cabin crafted by set designer Wilson Chin could be several settings – a squatter hideout or a simple cabin or an overseer’s office. The cabin, what turns out to be Baylen and Margot’s home, is theatrically framed (the walls aren’t solid, entranceways with curtains rather than solid doors) and evokes Maria Irene Fornes’ Mud and Eugene O’Neill’s Moon for the Misbegotten – ramshackle settings where the worries of the world are played out among a trio of financially impoverished but emotionally rich characters.
Chin’s set provides several playing areas, an astute use of the challenging dimensions of the tall yet intimate Beckett Theatre. Stage right, high on a hill reached by ramps, is the home shared by Baylen and Margot. Stage left is a work area with dirt, a grave being prepared by Baylen for the next coffin. And around the edges and at the lip of the stage, a level below the cabin and the grave, the workmen Baylen and Gizzer interact with the rich interloper, test his mettle, and compare their perspectives. Gizzer hates Charles and will always show it, while Baylen hides his class consciousness for most of the play.
Koch’s Baylen is kind by instinct (he offers human compassion to the grieving Charles and even shares a piece of his humble workman’s lunch) and Gizzer is consistently resentful of the upper-class Charles, with a personal reason for the anger we learn as the play proceeds. Koch and Lawson create solid and moving workmen characters. Moggie’s Margot deeply evokes Forne’s three-hander Mud at times, while her finely etched performance of Margot never wavers in her love for her husband or her commitment to her family, within the limits of her circumstances.
The world, in this production of this splendid play, is specific, charming, fearsome, intimate and haunting. Sound by Toby Jaguar Algya and original music by Will Van Dyke evoke a hillbilly sensibility that folds seamlessly into text and action. Class divisions are tested by human tragedy but rigidly reassert themselves. Sex and physical risk and fear and redemption all combust and resolve, in under two hours. A marvelous creation.
The Gravedigger’s Lullaby. Through April 1, 2017 at the Beckett Theatre, Theatre Row (410 West 42 Street). Running time 100 minutes with no intermission.
Photos: Marielle Solan