Although playwright David Lindsay-Abaire is known for his absurdist humor, impossible characters and unexpected quirks, his Rabbit Hole is a serious and entirely conventional drama dealing with grief — perhaps the worst grief possible, the death of a child.
Bereaved mother Becca is a rigid perfectionist, given to baking sophisticated treats; when her flaky younger sister, Izzy, snatches a crème caramel from the refrigerator, Becca insists on unmolding it properly onto a plate; straight from the ramekin, she says, it's only custard. She has packed away photographs of Danny, her four-year-old son who was killed by a car after he ran into the street after the family dog; she has given away the dog. She seems to have everything under control as she folds Danny's little tops, pants and onesies for charity. She refuses to reminisce about him and interrupts sharply when anyone else seems about to do so. Her husband, Howie, copes by going to a support group, but he, too, seems to be functioning all right. He's pleasant and affable with Izzy and Becca's mother, Nat, who has also suffered the loss of a son, though under very different circumstances. But every now and then, Becca or Howie snaps, usually into uncontrollable rage. And the stress heightens when irresponsible Izzy reports that she's pregnant, and then Jason, the teenage driver who killed Danny, gets in touch.
When Becca talks with Jason about alternate universes, she wonders if "this is just the sad version of us." The play's tone is set by her self-control, in the face of which emotional effusions would be vulgar, and the script rings true. Couples who lose children are very likely to find that they're most unable to connect just when they need each other most, as Howie and Becca do. It's equally true that friends often turn away in the face of tragedy, unsure what to say, afraid on some primitive level that bad luck is contagious. And people who do offer help can be downright irritating with their wet-eyed sympathy, their attempt to use the sorrow of others to infuse meaning into their own lives.
But we've heard all this before. These observations are the lingua franca of the support group. What's missing from Rabbit Hole is an imaginative leap.
Under the direction of Christy Montour-Larson, Curious Theatre has staged an impeccable production, from Michael R. Duran's pleasant, cream-and-light-blue set to Brian Freeland's haunting sound design to a quartet of terrific performances. Rachel Fowler is faithful to Lindsay-Abaire's portrait of a woman whose suffering makes her hard to like; her approach to Becca's slow softening is rich and nicely understated. Erik Sandvold's Howie is full of hurt and confusion, and Jessica Robblee brightens up the stage whenever she bounces on as Izzie. Kathryn Gray's Nat is simultaneously ditzy and wise, petty and profound, and her speech about how grieving never stops but we go on nevertheless represents one of the most touching moments in the play.
At times, Rabbit Hole has a quiet majesty very fitting to the weight of its theme. But while I respect the playwright's refusal to give us a conventional catharsis — instead showing the road to recovery as sad, grinding and ordinary — part of me was just annoyed by this family's so-WASPy emotional constipation. I kept thinking about the funeral of a black pastor I once saw on television, his wife rocking in her seat as tears poured down her face, the passionate keening of the congregation. And of Constance's words in Shakespeare's King John: "Grief fills the room up of my absent child./ Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,/ Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words/ Remembers me of all his gracious parts,/ Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;/ Then, have I reason to be fond of grief."