A confession – I’ve always been low-key jealous of Theresa Rebeck. Whereas my television writing career has languished, her credits include amazing shows like L.A. Law and NYPD Blue (for which she won a Writers Guild of America award), not to mention the cult classic musical series she created, Smash. And while the closest I’ve gotten to writing for theater is what you’re reading, Ms. Rebeck has dozens of produced plays to her name. After watching the Primary Stages production of her latest, Dig, my jealousy has kicked up a notch.
Dig takes place in a plant store of the same name (with a set by Christopher and Justin Swader so verisimilar I was convinced I’d passed the exact storefront somewhere in Brooklyn) and sets up its premise quickly: Megan (Andrea Syglowski) is responsible for the death of her infant son and has recently attempted suicide. Her dad’s friend, Roger (Jeffrey Bean), reluctantly agrees to let her work in his gardening shop as a potential step in her recovery.
At first glance, the two characters couldn’t be more different. Roger has a way with plants (though perhaps not with people) and spends his days nurturing them. Megan is infamous for failing to care for her child; his agonizing death, forgotten in the back of a hot car, made national news (reminiscent of, and perhaps inspired by, the 2019 death of Luna and Phoenix Rodriguez).
The central question in Dig is age-old, how to forgive someone who has done something unforgivable. At the beginning of the play, Megan is carefully following her Alcoholics Anonymous playbook to atone for misdeeds. Her every interaction seems to end with an apology. Despite this constant genuflection, Megan’s father, Lou, cannot forgive her. Triney Sandoval’s fine portrayal seethes with anger. His desire for his daughter to suffer is both understandable and painful to witness.
The person having the hardest time forgiving Megan is Megan herself. The play’s willingness to delve into her pain is, quite simply, why we have theater. Andrea Syglowski is an open sore on stage, ugly and vulnerable and painful and impossible not to watch. Jeffrey Bean’s Roger, also composed of contradictions, is equally compelling. Though he is flawed and judgmental, he is also protective and loving, and his acceptance of Megan’s shortcomings is the key to her recovery.
Under Ms. Rebeck’s compelling direction (jealous again!), the entire cast shines. Each character is so distinct it is sometimes hard to believe the play contains them all. Greg Keller’s stoner fuckup Everett is hilarious (until he’s not); Mary Bacon provides a sunny, troubled Molly; and David Mason makes a brief but memorable appearance as Megan’s dangerous ex, Adam.
The script is not without flaws. At one point, Roger seems to discourage Megan from reporting a crime. It’s a sour moment that downplays the seriousness of the crime and seems done more for dramatic convenience than anything else. Likewise, saving Megan’s dead son’s name for late in the play feels forced. Overall, though, the play is a tightly written, well-constructed, compelling piece of theater.
The design elements are spot on. Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s costumes do the job nicely, grounding the characters in the play’s reality. Mary Ellen Stebbins’s lighting plays well with the Swaders’ set. Fitz Patton’s interscenic sound cues are slightly jarring, subtly foreshadowing the darkness ahead.
It’s tempting to view Dig as some kind of retelling of the Orpheus myth, where Roger, as Orpheus, leads Megan, his Eurydice, out of hell back into the land of the living. But that’s missing one of Rebeck’s essential points, that Roger needs human connection every bit as much as Megan does. He is both savior and saved. Reaching out to others and taking a chance on making a connection pays out both ways. Even a small act, like supporting a local business rather than ordering from Amazon, makes everyone’s lives better. Those that fail to care for those around them, angry Lou, sociopathic Adam, and egocentric Everett, remain damned and unhappy. But those who support one another, Roger and Molly and, yes, Megan, we know they will be able to lead each other out of the darkness.