When a popular narrative takes root, a more complicated truth usually exists beneath the surface. That is the essence of Dig, Theresa Rebeck’s potboiler drama, which is now making its New York debut with Primary Stages at 59E59, under the playwright’s own direction. Slow to grow but breathtaking in bloom, it is nourished by a winning combination of sharp dialogue and excellent performances — the water and sunlight of the theater.
As you may have guessed, Dig is set in a garden shop in a gentrifying neighborhood. Roger (Jeffrey Bean) runs the store and owns the building. His only employee is Everett (Greg Keller), a stoner who drives the truck. Well into his 50s, Roger finally has everything the way he likes it. He doesn’t particularly care that sales are lousy. He intends to stick with it, even though everyone expects him to cash out and sell to a developer.
Roger’s friend Lou (Triney Sandoval) helps with pro bono accounting. Lou’s 36-year-old daughter, Megan (Andrea Syglowski), has recently moved back home following a failed suicide attempt. This comes just over a year after the accidental death of her young son, which resulted in a highly publicized trial. Megan is a pariah in the community, and it obviously alarms Roger when she essentially hires herself to work for free in the shop. Could this be the beginning of her redemption story?
With her slouched posture and partially swallowed diction, Syglowski fully embodies a woman in need of a fresh start, endowing Megan with just enough edge to keep us wondering if she’s a tragically misunderstood victim or a psychotic predator. It adds multiple layers of intrigue to a play that often conveys somewhat predictable sexual politics.
We can feel Rebeck’s heavy directorial hand in Lou, who responds to Megan’s breakdown by becoming the ur-patriarch. Sandoval convinces us with his nervous, sweaty performance that this is in response to real lived trauma — but that doesn’t endear us to the character.
Then there’s Molly, the church lady who sees recruiting a fallen woman like Megan into her prayer group as her way to answer Christ’s call. Her scenes offer consistent comic relief, but Mary Bacon plays her with such unflinching sincerity that we’re left with no doubt that she really believes she’s doing the Lord’s work.
Most disturbing is Everett, whom Keller makes easy to dismiss as a harmless loser with a runny mouth. Yet a late scene, in which he silently, calmly considers the consequences of doing something dreadful before plunging ahead, feels all too real.
It is notable that the only sympathetic male character in Dig is the 50-something (likely virgin) plant guy. Neutered of all sexual desire (or at least the will to act on it), he represents something of a feminist pipe dream: kind, supportive, and completely nonthreatening. Is it any wonder that his heart is trampled in the second act?
Bean delivers a wrenching performance as a man with a solitary life, who has built emotional walls to protect himself and his little jungle, and who is punished when he strays from that fortress. Bean makes us feel Roger’s joy, and his pain when it is crushed, which comes in the form of Rebeck’s signature invective.
“You’re a crazy plant person,” Megan tells him. “You hide in this stupid shop that no one comes to and you tell yourself it means something. It doesn’t mean anything. People laugh at you because you’re nothing.” Tell me what you really think!
The actors in Dig make a meal out of this salty language. Their realistic performances paper over the holes in Rebeck’s plot (the timeline around Megan’s trial, her prison sentence, and her stint in the hospital is particularly hazy). Nagging questions about the story will likely follow you home, as Rebeck the director has largely given a hall pass to the laziest shortcuts of Rebeck the playwright. But in the theater, at that moment, it’s hard to consider these things when the actors are knocking the wind out of you.
The physical world is somewhat less spectacular. Set designers Christopher and Justin Swader have created an appropriately hip interior for this urban plant shop, complete with exposed brick and skylights (realistically lit by Mary Ellen Stebbins). They haven’t been able to solve the problem of featuring obviously fake plants on Roger’s shelves. But in fairness, it would be cruel and prohibitively expensive to subject actual living flora to the carnage Rebeck has envisioned. Plant dads might want to take a pass on this one.
Still, devotees of great acting will dig Dig, a play that proves magnificent performances can grow out of somewhat dusty soil.