You’ve heard the conventional theatrical wisdom.
Playwrights shouldn’t direct their own plays.
On the other hand, given that writers have become more familiar with their work over months if not years, shouldn’t they be more attuned to what their scripts need more than directors who’ve recently come on board after having read the plays once or twice?
For that matter, playwrights write many a stage direction. Doesn’t the word “direction” suggest that they’re de facto staging and directing from the outset?
What’s more, we’ve time and time again been told that film is a director’s medium and theater a playwright’s. Well, so shouldn’t the dramatist have the last word?
On yet another hand, having another theater-savvy eye can occasionally – or often – or usually (pick one) – help a playwright to see a facet that the author missed.
For better or worse, Theresa Rebeck, who’s proved herself as a Pulitzer Prize finalist in drama, has decided to stage her new play DIG for Primary Stages.
Before this, she’d directed one off-Broadway production, but it was by a fellow playwright. So as if giving birth to a new play isn’t arduous enough, Rebeck decided to do both jobs.
Rebeck the Playwright first. Dig is the name of a local flower the shop in a depressed part of Cleveland. At the outset, we see that owner Roger is angry with his customer Lou, who’s brought in an ailing plant. How, Roger wants to know, could Lou treat a living, breathing thing this way?
Rebeck the Director has made sure that Jeffrey Bean expresses Roger’s disgust that’s commensurate with a doctor whose cancer patient won’t stop smoking.
Making matters worse is that Lou is not only Roger’s customer, but also his accountant and long-term friend. Roger also has lovely memories of the time that Lou, stepfather to a very young Megan, legally adopted the girl after his wife’s death. He truly adored the cute little thing.
Now Megan’s a full-grown woman, but guilty of something unspeakably horrific, an action that a thinking adult would have never done. Lou – and Roger as well – are so devastated that they’ve lost all confidence in her. That Megan also became an alcoholic certainly didn’t raise their esteem of her, either.
As Lou, Triney Sandoval shows the anguish that many a father has endured when he makes the age-old observation “You just wonder what you could have done more.” Lest Rebeck the Playwright be accused of simply settling for a hoary line, she not long after shows her originality – and daring – in having Lou make a statement that gets horrified gasps from the audience.
Rebeck gets credit for creating a Megan who, despite all this, is invested in her future; after all, she’s only 36, so she’ll shed as much of her past as possible.
How much was Rebeck the Director responsible for Andrea Syglowski’s arresting performance as Megan? Which of them decided that the character should wrap both arms around her body and hug herself tightly to suggest that she’d fall apart if she didn’t? Audiences (and, to be sure, reviewers) never really know that when a performer does something specific if the director had demanded “Do this!” Or was it a case where the performer had invented something during rehearsal and the director merely exclaimed, “Leave that in!” So we’ll never know which of the two decided that Megan should put her hands so deep in her pockets that she seems to be hiding something.
(As the play continues, we’ll learn that she is.)
Costume designer Fabian Fidel Aguilar helped establish the character by putting her in jeans with holes at the knees; on Megan, this isn’t a trendy fashion statement, but a metaphor for someone who’s been torn apart.
Yet when Rebeck the Playwright reveals the truth, you may wish that Someone Else the Director had collaborated with her and talked her out of this “solution.” The explanation she’s created is very hard to believe.
Yes, Megan bears some responsibility for the terrible tragedy, but the disclosure of extenuating circumstances may make you narrow your eyes to doubt-filled slits when you learn how Megan decided to handle it.
Rebeck the Playwright knows that such a dour situation needs comic relief wherever it can get it. So she includes Everett as Roger’s assistant. As passionate as Roger is for his flowerpots, Everett feels the same way about pot.
At least that’s what Roger claims; Everett (Greg Keller) staunchly denies that’s he’s been smoking. Keller and Rebeck the Playwright eventually settle the argument by showing his hilarious non-stop rambling; Everett initially doesn’t understand that the more he talks, the more he’s proving that Roger’s right. By the time he realizes that he’s giving himself away, he admits in one of Rebeck’s best lines, that he’ll “put the ‘hi’ back in ‘Ohio.’”
(She also gets in a very funny exchange involving the all-too-overused expression “I’m sorry.”)
The substance abuse is only one problem of many that finally gets Roger to fire Everett; Megan volunteers to take his place. Roger doesn’t want her there, yet the way that Rebeck the Playwright has her get around him is quite convincing, after she literally takes matters into her own hands.
However, when Megan brushes past him, Rebeck the Director’s faulty staging shows that Roger could have easily stopped her from proceeding. Rebeck the Playwright could argue that way down deep Roger really wants her working for him, but so much of what he says aloud assures us that he doesn’t.
As always, Rebeck the Playwright shows that she puts in the arduous hours – nay, months– to do as much research as any play of hers requires. That was clear in Bernhardt/Hamlet (where we learned so much about the legendary actress and her most remembered role) and Mauritius (where she taught us quite a bit about rare stamps). So here too you’ll get into the minutiae of the world of plants. Our playwright somehow makes you care deeply about the plants – more than you would have thought when you entered 59 East 59th Street. Don’t get flummoxed when, for the first time since high school, you’ll encounter the word “photosynthesis.” But that’s the fast-talking Roger for you, assuming that everyone else knows the lingo and shares his ardor for the plant world.
Rebeck the Playwright, though, isn’t out to make us horticulturalists; she uses the sequence where Roger gives Megan and Everett a lesson on pruning a plant to show how greatly involved the former is while the latter keeps quiet and patiently waits for the sermon to end.
DIG has a cast of six, which means an almost bank-breaking number of salaries. During the entire two-hours plus, only one customer comes into the shop – Molly (the always superb Mary Bacon), who’ll become involved with Megan and offers an alternate set of solutions. But Rebeck the Playwright convincingly explains why no one else ever shows up in the establishment. Apparently this is an enterprise that desperately needs an Audrey II – a young Audrey II, that is …
(Speaking of Little Shop, The Swader Brothers – Christian and Justin – have designed a plant shop that will never be confused with Mr. Mushnik’s.)
That sixth character is an intruder (well-played by David Mason) who demands to speak to Megan. She clearly doesn’t want to see him, let alone have a conversation with him. Roger threatens to call the police, but his intransigence convinces Megan that speaking to him will be the lesser of two evils. She asks Roger to leave her alone with him – and he does.
Rebeck the Playwright is at fault here. Roger is too much in love with his shop and his plants to leave them with this loose howitzer who looks as if he’ll destroy the entire establishment in a moment’s notice.
Perhaps DIG will someday become a film, and this scene will take place outside the shop. Still, audiences at plays have long become accustomed to a theatrical convention where performers leave the one set they’ve been inhabiting all night long, and, as the lights dim behind them it, go to the lip of the stage and start speaking there. The audience isn’t confused, but knows that they are now somewhere else entirely.
Maybe playwrights shouldn’t direct their plays, after all …