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.”