"I don't know where you want this discussion to go."
Anyone in any relationship has said such words at some point, trying to gauge the safest response, struggling to figure out what the other person wants to hear, wondering if it is better to be elusive than honest.
But when that line is spoken by a husband to his wife in David Lindsay-Abaire's 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "Rabbit Hole," it registers with a deep pain. For these characters, every word is a land mine, capable of setting off the most dreadful reactions; every conversation, even on the most mundane of topics, can trigger a dangerous mood.
The rabbit hole Howie and Becca have fallen through after the accidental death of their 4-year-old son Danny has led them to a place without any of the old, normal bearings, a place where the reality of life is now enormously, frustratingly, unnervingly complex.
The power of the play, which has received a first-rate production by Everyman Theatre, is that it draws us into this upturned world with a gripping naturalness. This is not some by-the-numbers, manipulative weeper on Lifetime. It comes by its emotional pull honestly.
Despite the uncomfortable subject matter, "Rabbit Hole" manages to be at once gripping and somehow strangely comforting - comforting in the sense that we are all, at some time, put in the situation of confronting the awfulness of a loved one's death and picking up the pieces afterward.
Lindsay-Abaire writes dialogue that never sounds artificial. Humor is deftly employed, not so much in the time-honored tradition of letting an audience relax after a lot of heaviness onstage, but in the service of keeping everything real. And the playwright knows how to construct scenes without making each brick show. This is a remarkably unstagey stage work.
Directed with exceptional sensitivity to pacing and nuance of tone by Vincent M. Lancisi, the Everyman production offers the double pleasure of being absorbed in a finely crafted drama and also being struck anew by the power of inspired acting. This cast burrows deeply into the material, leaving an indelible mark every step of the way, aided by Daniel Ettinger's elegantly efficient set and Kathleen Geldard's dead-on costume design.
As Becca, Deborah Hazlett provides a compelling portrait of what it's like to grieve, to cope, to loosen up, to grieve again. Just the way, in the opening moments, that she goes about folding tiny, just-laundered clothes speaks volumes about this mother's upturned world.
Hazlett takes us through each shift in Becca's post-trauma frame of mind, at one moment wanting to push away things that remind her of Danny; at another, wanting to meet Jason, the teen who just happened to be driving down a certain street on a certain day when a little boy did something unexpected.
Chris Bloch reveals Howie's own complex way of dealing with the never-imagined void in his life, his mix of nostalgia and spring-loaded anger. It is a vividly realized portrayal that reaches a particularly affecting height in a passage where Howie makes a gentle, endearing attempt to rekindle intimacy with Becca.
The character of Izzy, Becca's unmarried and not-quite-centered sister, gives the play an interesting edge. Her sorrow is once-removed; she has her own life to live. But everything she says and does is still as likely to stir the simmering pot as anything else. Once past some physical stiffness at the start (a few too many upturned palms), Megan Anderson inhabits the part tellingly.
The character of Jason does not lead the play in directions you might expect, and one more scene would have been useful to bring him into greater focus. But Troy Jennings does impressive work with the assignment, subtly conveying Jason's own internal confusion and disarming naivete.
It is Jason who introduces talk of parallel universes, but it is Nat, Becca and Izzy's mother, who has experience with different planes of existence. She's been down the rabbit hole before, has developed ways of escaping dark places. She can be gruff, insensitive (as in her awkward tangent about "the Kennedy curse"), and very sensible.
Every line and every gesture of Rosemary Knower's incisive, note-perfect performance as Nat greatly enriches this production of a play that has the unmistakable ring, and sting, of truth.
If you go
"Rabbit Hole" runs through Oct. 11 at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St. Tickets are $22 to $40. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org.