From darkest grief to hope

A family struggles with a child's death in Colonial Players' 'Rabbit Hole'

Theater Review

October 23, 2008|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Baltimore Sun

The second presentation of Colonial Players' 60th anniversary season of plays celebrating love is David Lindsay-Abaire's 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Rabbit Hole, which takes an unflinching look at a couple coping with the accidental death of their 4-year-old son.

Rabbit Hole stirs the senses and is enlightening in its portrayal of family members - husband and wife and her sister and mother unable to help each other as they each work alone through grief. Moreover, Colonial Players introduces brilliant playwright Lindsay-Abaire, who infuses this work with an all-pervasive honesty in which his characters evoke empathy before the audience comes to understand them fully as family. Lindsay-Abaire's gift for lyrical, nuanced dialogue that is exactly right for each character is extraordinary. Through this dialogue, a family's despair, confusion, bungling and life-affirming laughter are on display along with their hope as they each learn to cope with the death of young Danny.

The audience becomes an instant eavesdropper witnessing a family's tragedy before being pulled into the drama to become part of a shared experience. This is a theater phenomenon that requires a gifted playwright, a skilled cast and director, and a home-like set. All of these conditions are in place at Colonial Players, and the intimate theater's in-the-round setting draws the audience in.

Here the set design of Barbra Colburn creates a believable family home that includes a living room with a TV, a dining area, a working kitchen, and a credible upstairs bedroom that will be cleared of a dead boy's things.

Conscious of this engrossing play's ability to transcend boundaries between actors and audiences, director Tom Newbrough succeeds at drawing the audience in to become involved with the emotions of "these human beings trying to cope and survive an extraordinary tragedy." He has gathered a cast of superb local actors.

The role of Becca - a former career woman who became a stay-at-home mother, later faced with redefining herself and her life - brought actress Cynthia Nixon the 2006 Tony award for best actress. In CP's production, this challenging role is eloquently played by Kris Valerio, who creates a fully dimensional portrait of an outwardly calm woman restraining her emotions and searching for logic in the death of her son eight months earlier. From the first scene where Valerio's Becca is sorting the clothes of a small child as she converses with her sister, the audience is drawn to her to shield her from the thoughtless remarks of well-meaning family members. Valerio gradually moves from a woman addicted to order, frustrated, angry and isolated in her grief to one who takes halting steps to rebuild a life that may involve moving to a house that holds no memories.

As Becca's husband, Howie, Jim Gallagher does an exemplary job of inhabiting his character. As Gallagher's Howie copes with his loss by watching videotapes of his son Danny, he communicates a father's pain and need to cling to what remains of a life snuffed out by a car accident. Gallagher creates a father who looks for rationality and intellectualizes to fill his life. Gallagher exposes Howie's palpable vulnerability as he tries to console his wife and establish their former intimacy.

Jamie Erin Miller holds her own as free-spirited, irresponsible Izzy, who in the opening scene with sister Becca amusingly describes an altercation with the female roommate of the man who is gradually revealed to be the father of her expected child. A skilled ensemble player, Miller conveys Izzy's need for attention amid her sister's tragedy, sparring with brother-in-law Harry, whom she resents and wants to assign blame. At her birthday party with the family where she longs for attention, Miller's Becca delivers some natural comic lines to her mother, Nat.

Millie Ferrara is convincing as Nat - the mother of Becca and Izzy - as she prattles on, intent on filling moments of dreaded silence with her ramblings on topics such as the curse of the Kennedy family. Compassionately eager to communicate with Becca and shield her from additional grief, Ferrara's Nat describes her regret at turning away from the one friend who tried to console her at the suicide of her adult son, saying that the friend wanted to share her grief, but could not, and wound up sharing only her cinnamon buns.

Jason, the teenage driver of the car and the one responsible for Danny's death and who now seeks the parents' forgiveness, is played by 11th-grader Joshua Greenwald, who expertly conveys Jason's outsider status as he tries somehow to make amends through dedicating a story he has written to Danny. It is from this story of an alternate universe that the play takes its title.

Each cast member flawlessly delivers every word of Lindsay-Abaire's dialogue that captures the essence of each character. There is a lyrical liberation in the lines given to Izzy, a garrulous natural rhythm to Nat's, a hesitant youthful ambivalence to Jason's, a need to make intellectual sense in the lines assigned to Howie and powerful economy of emotion and restraint in Becca's.

This is a play that should be seen by everyone who enjoys discovering a first-rate playwright and appreciates skilled acting.

Performances continue Thursdays through Sunday through Nov. 8.

Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for seniors and students. To reserve, call the box office, 410-268-7373, or go to the Colonial Players Web site, www.cplayers.com.

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