Rabbit Hole follows a path through potentially paralyzing grief.
Thursday, October 2, 2008
It’s understandable if people cringe at the prospect of seeing Western Stage’s production of David Linsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole. Although it won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for five Tonys, Ben Brantley of The New York Times called it a “wrenching” play that provokes “copious weeping among its audience.”
So it’s not Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin. But it is one of the most intelligent, passionate and human dramas this county has seen this season. Last weekend, the Western Stage premiered it with tight ensemble acting and professional zeal.
The story drops us into the home life of a middle-class couple after their only child, a 4-year-old boy named Danny, was hit and killed by a car outside of their home. It’s eight months later and the boy’s parents, Becca and Howie, are wading through a morass of grief and emotional fragility.
The mother, Becca, played by Shannon Warrick, wearily carries about in a frumpy, brown housecoat. By contrast, her sister Izzy, played by Dawn K. Flood, is sassy in leather jackets and stylishly torn jeans. Their opening banter reveals the first tears in the seam of an otherwise resilient family: As Becca folds her deceased son’s clothes, Izzy casually drops the news that she’s pregnant.
Warrick, whose voice inflection sounds a bit like TV’s Roseanne, plays the scene beautifully. She’s shocked, joyous, jealous and supportive all at the same time. It’s the first indication that the actress can and will take the audience on a complex, emotional ride.
The stage, a 3/4 thrust (surrounded on three sides by audience seating, the front row close enough to prop feet on its edge) recreates the interior of the couple’s home, including the living room, kitchen and the deceased boy’s bedroom.
There are flashes of funny bits, like when a tipsy Nat (Becca’s obnoxious but good-hearted mom, played by Donna Federico) rants about the Kennedys. But when she blurts out, “I feel sorry for Rose Kennedy, living through all that death,” the family drops into a pit of silence and tension, before changing the subject. That proximity to grief and mourning never leaves. Instead, the family has to come to accept it as another presence in the home.
Ultimately, as sad as the content is, it’s not a depressing play. Because the characters don’t surrender to their grief– surrender would mean divorce and complete withdrawal from life– the play is about struggle, recovery and understanding.
Becca and Howie are still parents, protecting even the memory of their departed son. First, Becca must do so against her own mother, who compares their loss to the loss of her own son.
“Don’t compare the two,” Becca yells. “Danny was a boy who chased his dog out on the street; my brother was a 30-year-old heroin addict who hung himself!”
Later, when Becca is ridding the house of Danny’s toys and clothes, Howie (played with gusto by Paul Stout) lashes out: “You have to stop erasing him!”
Paul initially appears well adjusted, almost uncomfortably so, but it’s revealed that he is as fragile as his wife: He watches a video of himself and his son playing over and over, the joy from the flickering light washing over him.
Becca searches for answers, even as she dismisses them in turn: God is a “sick bastard” for heaving such pain on her; the literature she encounters in a book club only offers irony (they’re reading Bleak House); even the earnest attempts by her family to comfort bruises her emotionally. She’s like a creature wrapped in grief, something symbolized by the brown housecoat she wears scene after scene, even as the other characters change their outfits.
So how to get relief? How to find peace? That central struggle is at the center of the play, and it’s embodied in the character of Becca. As played by Warrick, the homemaker who gave up everything to be a mother, she is in limbo. She’ll fold laundry and bake pastries, but there’s an emptiness in her movements, like she could easily go back to bed and not crawl out.
An effect of the intimate spacing between stage and audience is that it allows close inspection of the actors. Paul Stout, for instance, gets so riled at times he not only says his lines, he sprays them. Kenny Neely, who plays the teen boy who was driving the car that killed Danny, is awkward and humble. Warrick, however, is phenomenal. Her eyes are commanding and expressive, her movements natural and always in character. You can’t catch her waiting for her line or a cue. She acts as though her world ends at the edge of the stage. That’s true of all the actors, who at times exit, enter and linger in the corners of the room, behind the audience, but stay faithful to the scene.
The promise of Rabbit Hole– the salve for the grief– is that it’s also about its own form of healing. It’s not a tidy healing, nothing Hollywood might recommend. It’s just a little something to hold onto. And it just might be enough. Kudos to Director Susanne Burns for making a brave choice that marshals art, story and local theater talent.
Rabbit Hole plays 8pm Friday and Saturday, 2pm Sunday, until Oct. 19, at Western Stage Studio Theater, 411 Central Ave., Salinas. $20/adults; $17/seniors, juniors, military. 770-6181, www.westernstage.com.