Friday, March 20, 2009

REVIEW: Rabbit Hole

Rabbit Hole

Shelley Calene-Black as Becca and Mark Ivy as Jason

In these escapist craving days, it may take a bit of courage to head to a play about parents who have lost a child. But don't let the subject of David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Rabbit Hole, now playing at Stages Repertory Theatre, keep you away. It's a strong play and a handsome production.

Becca and Howie are an average, likable couple dealing with the grief of losing their 4 year old son Jason from a car accident. Each has their own way of both coping and failing to cope. Becca tries to erase all signs of her son, while Howie endlessly watches an old video. Enter Izzy, the crazed and now pregnant younger sister, who manages to say all the wrong things and still mean well. Becca's mom, Nat, tries to help but mostly drinks too much and brings up her own loss, a drug addicted adult son who committed suicide. Complicating the healing process is Jason, the young teen who was driving the aforementioned car. He seeks his own resolve by spending time with the couple.That redemption could come in the form of this humbled teen forms the play's complex center. Rabbit Hole refers to the name of Jason's si-fi short story that he dedicates to their son. It also refers to the maze of mourning, which doesn't always move in a linear direction.

Lindsay-Abaire crafts his drama in everyday scenes—a quiet evening at home when Howie tries to romance his wife into another child, Izzy's birthday party, or putting away groceries—small
events where large emotions loom and lurk. The play displays an anatomy of grief in its full splendor, which includes pain, humor, and irony. The characters, rich and full all, never stop being real and compelling people because of their grief; sharp and witty banter flies during the most treacherous of moments.

The cast lives up to Lindsay-Abaire's natural ear for the way people actually talk and listen to one another, or, in some cases, refuse to do so. Shelley Calene-Black imbues the high strung Becca with a volatility that keeps us on edge. She bakes lemon squares, crème brulee and fancy tortes, but keeps us guessing on her next move. Jim Johnson's spot-on working suburban man is equally believable, demonstrating a more subtle vulnerability in his sudden outbursts. Bree Welch takes off as Izzy, the nutty sister, who on occasion makes the most sense in the room. Cristine McMurdo-Wallis gives Nat an endearing irritably that makes us glad she's not our mother. Mark Ivy, making a stunning professional debut, plays Jason with a knowing grace, creating a rare calm in this tense drama.

Leslie Swackhamer directs with an sensitivity for the material without collapsing into melodrama. Liz Freese's comfy suburban living spaces lend a sense of the familiar. Tim Thomson's sound design nicely punctuates the scenes.

Rabbit Hole never gets to the final stage of healing, if any such thing exists. Progress is measured in minutia. Becca and Howie sit at the kitchen table and recite a litany of upcoming events. We see the comfort of the simple naming of what comes next. When they get to a point where they run out of what comes next, Howie squeezes her hand, and slowly turns his head toward the future. We know then they will be alright.

So put down that remote. Think like Jason, do the hard stuff, and see this play that delivers more nutrition and substance than any buff fluff out there. There's a tonic here for these hard times too in watching these vulnerable people navigate the minefield of their emotions with eloquence and humility.

Rabbit Hole continues at Stages Repertory Theatre until March 22. Call 713-527-0123 or visit

Reprinted from