David Mason in ‘Dig’ (James Leynse)

The alocasia sanderiana—distinctive for its elephant ear–shaped leaves—is not an especially high-maintenance houseplant. Native to tropical rainforests, it favors humid environments like bathrooms, tolerates indirect sunlight, and requires watering only when a quarter of its soil dries out. A few things that imperil it: drafts, frost, direct light. Should its leaves fall off, from being brunt to a crisp, for instance, all hope is not lost. What makes it a beginner-friendly plant is its forgiving nature; if old leaves wither away, new ones can be coaxed from bulbs.

Dig, a terrific new play by Theresa Rebeck produced by Primary Stages in association with Jamie deRoy, opens with two men arguing over a fast-expiring elephant-ear plant. Roger (Jeffrey Bean), the ornery owner of the titular plant shop, is reprimanding his friend Lou (Triney Sandoval) for failing to properly water it. Roger had gifted the plant to Lou—who works as the store’s off-the-books accountant—only to have it returned to him with dropping, discolored leaves. It sits there, like a sphinx without a secret, as the two men bicker and Roger quickly frog marches Lou through the stages of grief, from denial (“I watered it”) to bargaining (“Okay, there was a period where watering was not my central focus”) to acceptance (“I didn’t water it for a little while, I know that was damaging”). “A little while” turns out to be an understatement: the plant had been languishing for at least a month before Lou “poured water on it and drowned it. To help it along,” in the words of an incensed Roger. An apology is begrudgingly tendered, which seals the argument.

The opening scene contains, in miniature and in a lighter key, the major themes of the play: abandonment, the work of forgiveness, the mercy of second chances, and learning when to repot a plant whose roots demand more room to grow. Roger comes closest to being the play’s central character; he’s not only the proprietor of the homey store, but also becomes, in the course of Dig’s two hours, a secular confessor, therapist, and paternal figure to some of the store’s visitors. There’s Everett (Greg Keller), an unapologetic stoner who makes deliveries for Roger and is forever looking for excuses to put “the high in Ohio”; in one side-splittingly funny scene, Everett, as if simultaneously channeling Breaking Bad drug kingpin Walter White and his slacker sidekick Jesse Pinkman, proposes to his boss that they go into the marijuana business together: “Your touch with the vegetation, Roger? You’d make a killing. This place could be transformed into an herbacious wonderland.” And there’s Lou, who unburdens himself to Roger over every coffee chat; lately the worry has been his adopted daughter Megan (Andrea Syglowski), who has just been released from jail and is crashing at his place for an indeterminate amount of time.

When we first see her, we hardly see her. Her face is obscured by a helmet of hair hidden in a hoodie and she slouches in a chair in a corner of Roger’s shop, as if willing herself to disappear. It emerges (and is no spoiler to reveal) that she was sent to jail for the crime of leaving her baby unattended for hours in a car, where he suffocated to death. She was subsequently sent to jail and then, after she tried to kill herself, a hospital. Upon being released, she moved back home with Lou, who makes no secret of the fact that he doesn’t fully trust her. The stress of having to take out a second mortgage on his house “because of all her legal fees” gnaws at him and hardens him against sympathy. He hints darkly at Megan’s troubled history, warns Roger not to give her a job out of pity or charity, and in one early scene discloses his depthless disappointment in her: “She was always a screw up but never in a million years would anyone have believed that she could do something so grotesque. I should never have let her come home.”

The opening scene contains the major themes of the play: abandonment, the work of forgiveness, the mercy of second chances, and learning when to repot a plant whose roots demand more room to grow.

If Lou, with his quicksilver temper, is like highly flammable hydrogen, and Roger, with his equanimity, is like one of the inert noble gases, Megan is the most unstable element in the play’s periodic table. When we meet her, she’s at a crossroads, looking for a way to atone or a way to make a living—as a reason to go on living. She has a hunted, sleep-deprived look about her, as if she were perpetually trying to outrun a secret or tamp it down into a little foxhole. Her fists are plunged so deeply into the pockets of her jacket that they leave permanent craters. She leads with her chin in every interaction—a byproduct of attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. “This is totally my mandate. I have to tell people things,” she divulges, apropos of nothing. Despite her father’s wishes, she ekes out a community-service gig for herself at Dig, apprenticing herself to Roger. As she learns about repotting and pruning plants, she and Roger develop a rapport—to reveal too much of its contours here would ruin the play. It’s not long before Roger, under the influence of his promising pupil, is introducing some color into the store in the form of orchids and other flowers, and they begin keeping bees in the garden behind the shop.

Just as Megan is starting to find a new equilibrium, trouble arrives in the form of Adam, her ex-husband (played by a quietly menacing David Mason). It’s implied that their marriage imploded from the death of their child and that the two haven’t seen each other since Megan went to jail. Ostensibly Adam shows up at Dig to bury the hatchet before getting remarried, but Megan quickly sees an ulterior motive. Their argument—overheard by Roger—catapults the play to its climax and threatens to send Megan once more on a downward spiral.

Rebeck is adept at letting details about a character’s past come out in the wash, and that’s the case here: the real cause of the baby’s death is revealed with startling simplicity. The revelation, excruciating to witness as it tumbles from Megan’s lips, is much worse than what the press and the rest of the country had been led to believe. After Adam slinks off, Roger urges Megan to tell the truth about what happened, but she is adamant in her keening refusal: “It would change nothing! Henry is still, he’s still in that car, suffocating, he’s dying.” For the audience, the truth behind Henry’s death changes everything. It alters our view of Megan as a wayward mother, and we may even come to view her habit of “taking pills and drinking vodka well past the point where a person should have stopped” as a coherent response to bearing such a heavy secret.

Dig thus introduces a distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation: forgiveness is about making peace with the person herself, while reconciliation is a matter of making peace with what she did in the world. Does one logically follow from the other? Is it possible to forgive someone while withholding reconciliation or vice versa? And who has standing to forgive Megan? Surely not a stranger, like the gossipmonger Molly (Mary Bacon), who makes a risible show of forgiving Megan for killing her child, invoking the word no less than five times during their second-chance encounter. Roger, the only other character to learn what really happened, intuits that it’s not for him to forgive Megan. At the end, he offers an apology of his own, for speaking “hastily and unkindly” toward her in a rare moment of anger. An apology and an olive branch: “You’re good with the plants. You’re good with the customers,” he tells Megan. And someone needs to look after the bees.


The fate of bees and other flora and fauna is also keenly on the mind of the central character in Rebecca Gilman’s Swing State, which received its world premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last year and opened earlier this month at Minetta Lane Theatre in New York. Peg Smith (Mary Beth Fisher) is a sixty-five-year-old widow living on a prairie in “Cardiff Township, the driftless area of Wisconsin,” according to the playscript. She keeps a list of “things that are gone,” including bats, chorus frogs, whip-poor-wills, and nighthawks. Like Megan, she is grieving the death of a loved one—in this case, her husband, who died of a heart attack two months after retiring from his job as a wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources.

Dig thus introduces a distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation: forgiveness is about making peace with the person herself, while reconciliation is a matter of making peace with what she did in the world.

Set in the summer of 2021, when COVID was a nontrivial threat and masking a political metonym, Swing State could be interpreted as a play about how the pandemic accelerated some people’s death drives. “As a species, we suck,” Peg acidly observes. “Jim and I—we used to fantasize that some plague or virus would come along that would kill all the humans but nobody else and that way, the planet could be rid of us and everything else could recover.” Since losing her husband Jim a year ago, Peg has become even more socially isolated. Her local paper endorsed Trump, which caused her to cancel her subscription, and she is on frosty terms with her neighbors, whose use of Roundup along the fence line endangers her wildflowers. (Other than this mention of Trump, the play is almost scrupulously careful to stay away from politics.)

In the play’s opening scene, Peg pauses while making zucchini bread and holds the knife to her wrist, as if contemplating ending it all right then and there. The moment passes when she hears the crunch of wheels on gravel, heralding the arrival of Ryan Severson (Bubba Weiler), the twenty-six-year-old man whom she treats like an adopted son. He mows the forty-eight acres of her prairie and does other odd jobs around her house to supplement his income as a truck driver. She relishes his company, warming up soup for him after a “shit day” at work and giving him space to vent. They have an easy, lived-in relationship. Peg, who used to work as a guidance counselor at Ryan’s school, knows better than anyone how to talk him off a ledge and he gives her a reason to stay alive.

On the fateful night that opens the play, Peg confides to Ryan that she’s planning to leave her house and barn to him in her will and bequeath the rest of her land to the Prairie Protectors. The stakes of the play are raised when, a week later, Jim’s old Winchester is discovered to be missing. Could Ryan have taken it, along with some antiques in Jim’s footlocker? Or did one of his buddies make off with the rifle, in the hopes of pawning it for drug money? Sheriff Kris Callahan Wisnefski (Kirsten Fitzgerald) immediately pins her suspicions on Ryan, whom she blames for introducing her son to drugs.

In an interview with the New York Times, Gilman said that her play is “about the characters’ emotional landscapes…swinging between despair and hope.” Between species extinction and the climate crisis, there are reasons aplenty for the former, not so many for the latter. It’s more accurate to say that Peg, as played by Fisher, swings between mourning and melancholy. In a famous essay, Freud distinguished between the two; while mourning is a normal process instigated by the loss of another person, melancholia is a pathological process in which the ego turns against itself in a suicidal way. That Peg hovers somewhere between the two modes of grieving seems to be the point: Swing State, as its title suggests, is about the gray zone between moods that, to quote Emerson, “do not believe in each other.”

Yet not every character is emotionally adrift—or complex. Sheriff Kris is an attack dog who has never basked under the black sun of melancholia; the more she puffs up her tough cop persona, the more she incarnates Hannah Arendt’s idea of the “impotence of bigness.” Her deputy Dani (Anne E. Thompson) is almost willfully naïve. “Other deputies say I’m the perfect ‘good cop,’” she tells Ryan in one scene. At times, the two cops are reduced to mere vehicles for conveying background information. But it’s the relationship between Ryan and Peg that forms the moral center of the play and that lingers in the mind. If depression is a continuous loop of thinking “there is no other this than this,” they help each other to see that there is and that the next “this” might be better.

Rhoda Feng is a freelance writer whose criticism has appeared in Artforum, the TLS, the New Republic, the Baffler, and the New York Times.

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