Taking great pains at grief

Theater review

Absorbing acting in tragic 'Rabbit Hole'

August 13, 2008|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun theater critic

One of the worst things about any big trouble is the way it isolates us at the precise moment we're most in need of comfort.

It matters not one whit if the people sharing our dinner table or office cubicle are going through the identical crisis, because no two traumas are exactly the same. Every loss, every grief is as individual and specifically coded as a set of fingerprints.

That's one of the main insights to be gleaned from David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for drama. A production running at the Olney Theatre Center is alternately harrowing, hilarious and hopeful.

FOR THE RECORD - A theater review in Wednesday's Today section misidentified one of the actors staring in Rabbit Hole, now playing at Olney Theatre Center. His name is Aaron Bliden.
The Sun regrets the errors.

In the play, an upscale suburban couple are devastated when their 4-year-old son and only child is killed in a traffic accident. It quickly becomes clear that Howie and Becca not only have different styles of mourning, but that their efforts to seek solace are diametrically opposed.

Becca (played with fierce fragility by Deborah Hazlett) seeks to erase all reminders of the boy so that she might, however momentarily, escape her unbearable pain. Howie (the affable Paul Morella) replays old home videos and compulsively discusses his loss with aghast strangers.

Other people grappling with the boy's death include Becca's feckless, pregnant younger sister, Izzy; her motormouth mother, Nat, who herself has outlived one of her children; and Jason, the teenage boy who was behind the wheel of the car.

The play is quite profound and wise in the way it explores the mechanisms of grief, from relatives who perversely cling to their guilt (because that implies the accident could have been prevented) to the bizarre hierarchies some mourners strive to erect.

At one point, Becca implies that the loss of her son is somehow a greater tragedy and more deserving of sympathy than was the suicide of Becca's 30-year-old drug-addicted brother - as if grief could be calibrated by a previously determined set of parameters.

In his directorial debut, Mitchell Hebert apparently hired the most skilled actors available, regardless of whether they precisely fit the script. For instance, Hazlett and Morella appear to be well into their 40s - arguably too old to have a son as young as Danny, unless the boy was adopted. Likewise, Kate Kiley, in the role of Becca's rambunctious mother, seems to be the same generation as her daughter.

Still, when you have actors this committed and brave, why cast anyone else?

Hazlett specializes in portraying brittle, intelligent women who bottle up their feelings until they unexpectedly burst forth. In Rabbit Hole, there's one galvanic moment when Becca's mood swings in a single sentence from calm encouragement to uncontrollable sorrow. Hazlett makes the leap without a moment's hesitation. It is gasp-inducing.

Though Howie seems to be coping better with his loss than his wife, Morella gradually reveals the fissures beneath his character's easygoing exterior. As the slacker sister, Izzy, Megan Anderson is the master of the casual, tossed-off gesture, and she gives her character a stable, mature core.

In fact, the whole cast is full of surprises. In lesser hands, Nat, who is obsessed with the Kennedys, might come across a bundle of quirks. But Kiley imbues the character with a hard-won wisdom. Likewise, Aaron Blinden usually remembers to underplay the role of the angst-ridden teen driver.

Initially, I was puzzled by Marie-Noelle Daigneault's set design, which combines a realistic interior - the living room and kitchen of the Corbett's home - with a more fanciful exterior, in which tree branches clearly hang upside-down above the roof.

But, in the second act, the meaning of the design became apparent. The audience members think we're observing Howie and Becca as they go about their actual lives, but we're wrong. They're not in the world we know, but in a parallel universe. They have embarked on that strangest of all journeys, a trip down the rabbit hole.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

"Rabbit Hole" runs through Aug. 31 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Show times are 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and some Wednesdays. Tickets are $25-$48. Call 301-924-3400 or go to olneytheatre.org.

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