Saturday, January 12, 2008

opening-night review (partial and incomplete) of "Rabbit Hole"

at Actors Rep Theatre (SFCC Spartan Theatre) through Feb. 9

"Come on out in the midwinter slush to see a sad play about a married couple grieving over the accidental death of their 4-year-old son."
As ARt's business manager Reed McColm, remarked to me before the show, "Rabbit Hole" isn't exactly the kind of show that "really sells the popcorn."
It's the loss of all those people who dismiss such a premise as"too depressing" and move on. Like most tragedies, "Rabbit Hole" points out ideals worth striving for, even if they're denied to us, even if we end up denying them to ourselves. Here, it's a happy family life -- seeing one tragically disrupted only makes us value the family we have all the more. Tragedy's counterintuitive like that: It vaults us past the sadness, and we leave the theater feeling rejuvenated.

If there's a central figure in this accomplished cast, it's Page Byers as Becca, the dead boy's mother.
When it comes to Izzy, her younger sister, Becca assumes the role of the maternal authority figure, the finder-out of guilt. The two sisters fight over food and clothes and furnishings -- whatever is at hand so they can remind themselves that they are miserable people.

She punishes herself even in the drab, shapeless dress she sometimes wears. (Jessica Ray's costumes -- including Izzy's opening party-girl get-up and the loud print for Doyle-Lipe's brassy matron -- quietly supplement the actors' characterizations.)

This emphasis on upsetting expectations -- learning really to accept that other people have different ways of grieving -- extends even to the ways playgoers may respond to John Hofland's upper-middle-class kitchen and living room. Small portraits of Danny cluster on the forestage, toppled at odd angles. Three much-larger-than-lifesize drawings of the dead little boy loom over the living areas, if one's obscured by the kitchen cabinets. Surely, I thought, such large-scale paintings would over-literalize the haunting nature of grief. We get that the memory of the child's death hovers over every single waking thought that Becca and Howie have, as they say repeatedly. But to drive that point home, do we really need conversations to be held in front of giant portraits? Design decisions like this seem too on-the-nose, too distrusting of the audience's intelligence.
And yet ... witnessing the screaming arguments, the quiet sadness in the presence of those large-scale portraits -- witnessing them in real time, with the hush of attentive listeners, the occasional sniffling, the slight leaning forward to catch the quieter lines, the pressing back against our seats when Weaver's grieving father vents his anger at his wife, at the teenage driver who ran over his boy -- all combine to make the giant drawings feel like part of a ritual. It's a ritual of grief we all have or will someday undergo, this not being able to get away from sadness, because there it is, larger than life, staring us in the face, not budging, and there is nothing at all that we will ever be able to do to make it go away.
One scene, with two characters sorting through little Danny's clothes and toys, is presented _through_ one of the portraits, which turns out to be a scrim: We literally see the little evasions, the talking-around-the-ever-present topic of death, literally _through_ the filter of the dead boy's presence.
And absence. His portraits can't replace him; he's still gone; and Hofland's design decisions aren't overly literal. Instead, in the best manner of a ritual, they highlight the inexpressible, the many sadnesses we never want to face, not ever. And must.

If viewers like me can have a change of heart over something as peripheral as the design elements, maybe that's a nice parallel to playwright David Lindsay-Abaire's focus on upsetting all kinds of expectations. We can never be sure that our way of grieving is the only way, or that there are some universal criteria out there determining who's ready to be a parent and who's not. The best plays show us something new, and "Rabbit Hole," especially in this consistently affecting, sometimes funny, usually lump-in-the throat production, holds up a mirror worth seeing. Even if looking in gets a little painful.

As the grief-stricken mother, Page Byers depicts an angry, repressed, resentful woman in what's clearly her best work ever at ARt.

All five members of the cast turn in remarkable, even outstanding work.
As the teenager whose car accidentally crushed the life of Becca and Howie's little boy, Jimmy-James Pendleton is a revelation. He didn't mean to do it; he's so sorry. Sad helpless anxiety marks every bit of crumpled-posture hand-wringing that Pendleton does, and his performance, hauntingly, is full of tears. A conversation he has with Byers' mother strikes a note of hope, mind-expanding and understated all at once.

On the debit side, it strains credulity that short Doyle-Lipe might be the mother of tall Hoaglund. And that's it -- that's about the only criticism I have of this show.

Last May, I saw the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of "Rabbit Hole." This Actors Rep version, in nearly every way, is better: in emotional involvement, in versimilitude of conversation, in using silence to highlight the pain that people quietly undergo before lashing out at anything, anyone who reminds them of irretrievable loss.

There's a scene in "Rabbit Hole" in which two people quietly resolve to get through one emotionally trying situation after another: The fight to function with grief, like the fight to maintain sobriety, is taken one day at a time. The brick's in the pocket; eventually you get accustomed to its weight. But it never goes away.

Because parents don't fear bugs or spiders or things that go bump in the night. What parents fear most is the death of a child. Their child.


  1. Will Patty Duke ever work at the ARt again?

  2. Jimmy-James Pendlton was exceptional in this show. His guilt and discomfort, combined with an easy innocence, was beautifully played. All of the women were terrific. Michael had a good second act. The bad part of this show was the atrocious costuming.

  3. I enjoyed this show more than any other I've seen at ArT, and I've seen most of them. The set was creative and smart, the script is superb, and the acting picked me up and carried me every step. This play was absorbing. A sublime treat.