Though Theresa Rebeck will be the first to admit that she lacks a green thumb, her latest play, Dig, has adorned the stage of 59E59 Theaters with dozens of real, breathing plants, thriving despite the unnatural habitat. The work allegorically explores the healing of trauma within people through the healing of greenery. The idea bloomed from her husband’s garden, as over the years she watched plants survive and grow despite the odds.
“I’m a person who kills plants—I love them, but I forget to water them, I don’t pay them enough attention, and I would watch him get them to rebloom like, eight times. That’s something that I didn’t even know was possible before I met him,” she says.
The play, produced by Primary Stages and currently running at 59E59 Theaters—where it has extended through November 5—follows Megan, a grieving mother and recovering alcoholic who is in need of a little rehabilitation...not the literal kind, but the kind of gentle, patient care that withering plants receive so they can begin to grow again.
Those around Megan, however, seem to feel she’s a lost cause, including her own father, who hesitantly takes her back under his wing, as the entire town is horrified by an accident which Megan takes responsibility for. But when Megan encounters her father’s friend Roger in his plant shop, Roger channels the tenderness and patience of any skilled botanist to give her a second chance.
Though the live plants on stage give a hefty dose of fresh air to the audience, it’s nonetheless a heavy story to digest—but in a way that offers space for reconciliation during an era where facing and processing trauma has become more of an open and ongoing conversation. “I’ve been thinking for a long time about trauma, and how many people I know in the contemporary world have been seriously traumatized, including myself,” shares Rebeck. “I wondered about really severe trauma. I also was reading about terrible accidents, and began to wonder: is it possible for a person to recover from that? And if you ever can, what does that look like?”
Thus, as Rebeck began the early stages of research and writing for the play, knowing that Megan would be a member of Alcoholic’s Anonymous which, as part of her recovery, would suggest that she find some sort of work, hobby, or purpose to recenter her focus, she decided that volunteering in a plant shop would pair well with Megan’s healing journey.
As Megan’s own father struggles to find hope for her—which, Rebeck notes, is not due to callousness, but his own way of processing the trauma himself—Roger steps in, and quickly becomes a saving grace to her. “She’s a dying plant in his eyes,” says Rebeck. As Megan begins to heal and even flourish through her newfound hobby caring for Roger’s plants—and also through Roger’s forgiving care—triggers inevitably resurface. She finds herself in an incredibly vulnerable and dangerous moment in Act II. But when Roger finds her at rock bottom once again, he helps her back up, despite feeling months of progress wither away.
“There’s been an understandable focus in American storytelling on really nihilistic stories in the last ten years—and I do understand that—but it’s not what I do. It’s not the way I see the world. I think that at this moment, the grace of having a story that has a lot of forgiveness…I think we’re ready for that,” says Rebeck. “I think people want to talk about forgiveness and how we forgive each other. People are really looking for ways to be in community with each other again,” she shares.
During that Act II moment in Dig, audience members were stifling sobs, and following the performance, in the restroom, strangers consoled each other as they dabbed tears from their eyes, reveling in the catharsis the play had offered. “From the jump, I was interested in inviting an audience in. I totally dig that thing that happens, where there’s a bunch of people sharing a story that’s being told to them, and we’re all in it together,” Rebeck responds.
For all the tears that Dig may evoke, it doesn’t lack in comedy to soften the hard edges of Megan’s story, and Rebeck’s next play will offer even more laughs, set to a similar theme. I Need That, beginning performances October 13 at Roundabout Theatre Company, will star Danny DeVito and his daughter Lucy DeVito. The play centers on a father struggling with hoarding and his daughter, who, like Roger with Megan, is finding grace for his strife.
"I promise you, when you see I Need That, it doesn't have the hard, terrifying, traumatic heartbreak. It's more amusing," notes Rebeck.
As the two plays run in tandem, both the similar themes and the timing of their stagings were coincidental, but Rebeck nonetheless appreciates the kismet. “The plays were written six years apart, so I was not thinking of them as companion pieces. But they’re certainly not as different as Barbie and Oppenheimer. There are echoes with I Need That being about a father-daughter relationship, and there’s some plant imagery…oh, I’ve been thinking about plants on and off for six years.”
For ticketing, visit PrimaryStages.org.