Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, December 2007
David Lindsay-Abaire wrote Rabbit Hole after fellow playwright and former Juilliard teacher Marsha Norman ('Night, Mother) told him to write a play about something that frightened him. Being a good playwright, he wrote about death, because there is nothing bigger and scarier in the entire universe than the inevitable final ending to existence. Being a father, he wrote about the death of a young child.
Rabbit Hole won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama without even being nominated. Its that good of a script.
I have referred to this as Mill City’s first “Grown Up” season because they have, of late, started presenting shows that appeal to a mature audience rather than to a family audience. Yes, they are closing this season with The Little Prince, but the rest of their offerings are definitely on the darker side.
This is a bold move for this community theatre group which is young in terms of the number of years they have been presenting as well as in the average age of the participants. Mill City was founded by young adults who had moved back home after earning their degrees and found that there was no outlet for the theatrical talents and interests they had honed in high school with the Drury Drama Team.
I had no doubt that Mill City would give Rabbit Hole the old college try, but could young actors, who are not yet parents themselves, and a young first-time director (Joshua Bishoff) really get this show right? The answer is yes. This is a deeply thoughtful and carefully paced production, anchored by Liz Urban’s powerful performance as Becca, the bereaved mother.
When I told people I was going to see Rabbit Hole the usual response was, “Oh, the Alice in Wonderland show.” No...and yes. Lindsay-Abaire has cleverly chosen his title to make you think of Alice’s descent into…what? The unknown? Madness? A separate place from which, no matter how hard she tries, there seems to be no escape? Get the parallel between that fictional fall and the surreal feelings of early grief? If you have ever experienced great loss you know how during your grief you can see and hear the real world still going on around you, but you are no longer a part of it. How can you get back to “normal,” wherever that is?
This is the problem facing Becca and all the other characters in this play. The play begins eight months after Becca and Howie’s (Chad Therrien) 4-year-old son Danny (voiced in an unseen home video by Austin Grogan) has died after being struck by a car in the street in front of his Larchmont home. He had run into the street after his dog, who was chasing a squirrel. It also begins with the announcement of Becca’s flighty younger sister Izzy (Amelia Wood) that she is pregnant, news that thrills the girls’ mother Nat (Jackie DiGiorgis) but is obviously hard for Becca and Howie to handle.
The other person struggling with Danny’s death is Jason (Trevor Foehl) the high school senior who was driving the car that struck Danny.
The tragedy that Lindsay-Abaire has constructed is not just Danny’s death, but the fact that it was both entirely accidental and completely preventable. Every character finds a way she or he is guilty, and yet they all know that their “If onlys...” are pointless. There is no one demon at whose feet to lay the blame. Accidents just happen, and they suck. There is no sense starting a foundation to prevent dogs from chasing squirrels, or boys from chasing dogs, or people from driving cars, or phones from ringing and distracting parents from watching their children. Oprah will not be inviting Becca and Howie to share their story with the world, it is just too pedestrian.
What do you DO eight months after you have lost your only child?? Is there a right or wrong way to grieve? Becca and Howie are each coping with their loss in a very different way, and those differences cause friction. Nat keeps comparing the suicide of her drug-addicted adult son, Arthur (Becca and Izzy’s older brother), with Danny’s demise, a comparison that angers Becca, and yet Nat has the same right to grieve her son as Becca does. Jason needs to deal with his grief by meeting with Becca and Howie, an idea that Becca welcomes and Howie abhors.
Bishoff has his cast play all this drama very slowly and quietly, which could be disastrous if it teetered into endless wordless stretches of boredom, but everything is clearly focused and paced. This is a vivid portrait of a family coping day by day with an event that has changed them forever.
Urban and Therrien are young to play Becca and Howie, who should be in their mid- to late-30s. He is a successful broker who commutes to work in New York City, plays squash on the weekends, and can afford for his wife to be a stay-at-home mom in their house in the upscale Westchester suburb of Larchmont. She is a gourmet cook and before Danny was born she worked at Sotheby’s auction house. They are healthy, good looking, well educated, and well-off. They have everything, right?
Urban plays Becca as barely a shell of a woman, often hunched over and wrapping her blue hoodie tightly around herself as if seeking comfort that never comes. There was only one scene where she didn’t have me in the palm of her hand, and that was the scene when Becca realizes that she has inadvertently taped over a videotape of Danny. I wanted to see more panic and terror as it dawned on her that she had just wiped another piece of evidence that her son had existed off the face of the earth.
Therrien was a last minute replacement in the role of Howie, and, knowing that, his performance is remarkably solid and nuanced. The odd thing was that I never really bought Therrien as a straight man. That is a peculiar criticism and one I have never made before, but it struck me and does make a difference in this play where Lindsay-Abaire clearly intended the character of Howie to be straight. I have no idea of Therrien’s sexual preference in real life, nor is it relevant, I just know that on stage he came across as a very nice gay man. Now very nice gay men often marry women and become loving fathers and husbands, but that is not the kind of marriage depicted here.
Izzy provides the comic relief, which is vitally necessary when dealing with a solemn subject like this. From having seen Lindsay-Abaire’s Wonder of the World at Barrington Stage in 2006, I was aware of this playwright’s loopy and delicious sense of humor and I was glad to see him make use of it here. Wood is a very attractive performer, and utterly believable as the well-meaning but discombobulated Izzy.
DiGiorgis did a nice job as Nat, particularly in her scene with Urban in Act II where mother and daughter are cleaning out Danny’s room so that the house can be shown to potential buyers without what Izzy rightly calls the “Ick Factor” of having to visit the room of a dead child. Here the two women find common ground in their loss, and Becca is able to glean strength and knowledge from her mother’s experience.
Foehl is actually a year younger than Jason, and I enjoyed seeing a real teen in this role. Foehl’s acting was a little tentative, but actors his age are more likely to be asked to sing and dance in the high school musical than to make an audience believe they have inadvertently murdered a little boy. Foehl has been given a challenge and met it to the best of his ability.
The biggest flaw in this production is Mill City’s lack of resources to make the set and costumes reflect the Yuppie Perfection of Becca and Howie’s world. Becca seems to have just two or three forlorn outfits in her closet, and that sofa wouldn’t be caught dead in a Westchester thrift shop, let alone a living room.
Happy holiday theatre this ain’t, but this production of Rabbit Hole is an honest and full-blooded attempt by a young company to present a mature and moving play. Their forthright performances, coupled with Bishoff’s clear-headed direction and Lindsay-Abaire’s exquisite script combine to create a powerful piece of theatre.
Mill City Productions will present Rabbit Hole at Main Street Stage, 57 Main Street in North Adams, MA. Performances are on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm, starting Friday, November 30th and running through Sunday, December 16th. The show runs an hour and forty minutes with one intermission. Due to language and adult situations, this play is not recommended for children under 13 years of age. Tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for students and seniors. For reservations, call 413-663-3211 or visit www.millcityproductions.org.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007