A fierce champion of the San Francisco theater scene, playwright, director and actor Ian Walker is keeping it invigorated with the premiere of “The Gravedigger’s Tango,” running at Traveling Jewish Theatre through the end of the month.
It’s easy to understand why Walker has won awards for his work. A cool literary mystery, “The Gravedigger’s Tango” cleverly tells the intersecting stories of a couple of cemetery workers and the people responsible for an undated grave with the epitaph: “Not one but two hearts lie below/ Beyond the reach of all we know/ Pray be silent and do not stir/ Till I find my way back to her.”
While unraveling the mystery of the grave marking is perhaps the most exciting element of the show, the admittedly spare Second Wind Productions presentation boasts food for thought on many levels; Walker, who also directs, explores fascinating philosophical themes and imbues his characters with passion and points of view.
Overseeing the graveyard is caretaker Laszlo (Doug Thornburg), a belligerent yet poetic fellow who, if nothing else, respects the sanctity of the site, which likely will be destroyed by a new highway coming through.
Laszlo is joined by Pip (Kathryn Tkel), who, at first, is simply there to make money as a gravedigger. But Pip, whose home life with Patrick (Joseph Rende) is unsettled at best, becomes caught up as Laszo tells what he knows about the grave’s inhabitant. The Englishwoman was named Isabella Ashecombe (Natalie Palan), and the man who grieved for her, Alexander Charon (Ryan Tasker).
Scenes fluidly alternate among those in the graveyard, in Pip’s apartment, and in England, where, with Laszlo and Pip watching, Alexander meets Isabella — and becomes dangerously entangled with her family. The story instantly sucks the viewer in: Alexander, a young, idealistic doctor, meets an older physician, Geoffrey Pockworth (Brian O’Connor), on a train in the English Moors. But was their meeting chance?
Due to circumstances beyond his control, Alexander is forced to go with Pockworth to the Ashecombe estate, where he’s instantly attracted to Isabella, and finds that her elderly father is, and has been, in a near-death state. Alexander’s ethics are challenged when asked to consider the prospect of ending the man’s life; the situation is exacerbated by Isabella’s over-the-top, angry brother Thomas (Tony Johnston).
Their stories unfold with intensity in the engaging drama.
What’s missing from this production of “The Gravedigger’s Tango” are beefier, possibly more creative, production values that really capture the eeriness permeating through the play. Realizing that Second Wind and similar small companies have limited resources, it may seem an undoable task. But with such committed actors and a classy script, “The Gravedigger’s Tango” deserves a physical setting that’s as lively as its spirit.
The Gravedigger’s Tango
Where: Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; closes July 29
Tickets: $13 to $25
Contact: (415) 508-5614 or www.secondwind.8m.com