In the William Kennedy novel Ironweed, Francis Phelen drops his infant son while changing his diaper. The boy’s neck snaps and he dies. Toward the conclusion of the first chapter, this passage appears:
“Francis found the grave without a search. He stood over it and reconstructed the moment when the child was slipping through his fingers into death. He prayed for a repeal of time so that he could hang himself in the coal bin before picking up the child to change his diaper. Denied that, he prayed for his son’s eternal peace in the grave.”
There is no grief on earth to compare with what a parent feels over the loss of a child. So performing David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, as Peter’s Alley is doing now, presents some significant acting challenges. It is a common technique for an actor, when seeking the key to understanding her character, to find some dilemma in his own life which compares to the character’s dilemma. So while it is unlikely that an actor’s father was the King of Denmark, he can probably locate some point in his life where someone he loved was victimized and he felt obligated to make things right.
That technique won’t work in this play, unless the actor has himself suffered this unspeakable loss. For in Lindsay-Abaire’s story, little Danny ran out into the street to chase after his dog and was killed by a car. And what we see is the aftermath.
The good news is that Director Stevie Zimmerman and her cast have surmounted this difficult challenge. They are all credible and moving. Danny’s father Howie (Brendan Murray) was a good-natured, sweet-tempered man who enjoyed sports and tended to settle disputes through research. His mother Becca (Rebecca Ellis) was a tough-minded, self-controlled woman who saw herself as a full-time mom. His aunt Izzy (Aly B. Ettman) was a free-spirited flibbertigibbet, who had trouble holding a job, and his grandma Nat (Sarah Holt) was a loopy, slightly dipsomaniacal manipulator, who had hidden strengths of her own. And Jason (Robert Grimm) – who drove the car that killed Danny – was a high school senior, and a nerd.
I say “was” because they are all transfigured by grief now, and will never be what they were before. They try hard, though. Becca listens patiently to Izzy’s tale of a bar fight, smile plastered on her face, while folding up her little boy’s clothes to take to Goodwill. Howie, back from the squash court, tries to explain away the actions of their friends who, paralyzed by fear, have avoided them since the accident. Nat, slamming down the white wine, expounds on the curse of the Kennedys by way of addressing the curse of Becca and Howie.
The key to these characters is that they are each going through an emotional supernova while trying to behave as though life was proceeding as normal. They talk about Danny, and his death, as though it were another life event to be managed, but in their hearts they are zombies, chanting our boy is dead over and over again. That the cast, and particularly Ellis and Murray, succeed in portraying these two contradictory states of being makes the production immensely powerful and moving. There is a beautiful moment where Murray as Howie, having tried to comfort his wife with reason and sweetness, turns on a video of Danny after she leaves, and there, eyes brimming with tears, mimes the words his young son spoke.
Holt and Grimm also provide decisive moments which help to generate the production’s momentum. Nat is not a likeable person, and Holt, to her credit, does nothing to make her likeable, but she shares a scene with Becca in which she talks about some grief of her own, and, in so doing, make both of them more human. Grimm, as Jason, is a young man in soul-crushing agony who nonetheless drags his resisting body to Becca and Howie’s homestead, and confesses his sins to Becca. As he grows more comfortable with her, he tells her about all the fun he had at his prom – and the scene dissolves in catharsis, for them and for the audience.
Closes October 19, 2014
Theatre on the Run
3700 South Four Mile Drive
Arlington, VA 22206
Two hours, including one intermission
Thursdays through Sundays
Rabbit Hole is not a play in the traditional sense, in that there is no rising action or resolution; Lindsay-Abaire wisely recognizes that for the crisis he is describing there is no solution, and often no resolution. He imports the patois of the self-help movement to show its ineffectuality; when the überobnoxious Izzy uses it condescendingly to shield herself from criticism you want to storm the stage and strangle her (or, if you as sedentary as I am, have one of the characters do it for you.)
For a play this good and this well performed, it would seem churlish to raise objections, but that is what I am paid to do so here goes: the set needs some serious work. The two kitchen cabinets are off-kilter, and thus significantly distracting. There is no more insidious enemy of serious, quiet dramatic dialogue than the fear that at any moment some element of the set will come crashing down. And if Theatre on the Run is serious about becoming a venue for first-class productions, it will need to do something about the exterior noise level. Finally, in the production I saw, there seemed to be a great deal of activity behind the curtain; and I saw stagehands through the curtain during the production. None of that helps sustain the fictive dream.
Notwithstanding all that: the production works. How can I tell? From the number of people who left the show weeping. And why would you want to go to a show that made you weep? Because it will show you that you can – that your heart can be moved to empathy by the plight of people you have never met. It will lead you to understanding, which is, after all, the first purpose of art.
Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire . Directed by Stevie Zimmerman . Featuring Aly B. Ettman, Rebecca Ellis, Brendan Murray, Sarah Holt and Robert Grimm . Lighting design: Peter Caress . Sound design: David G. Jung . Costume design: Ettman . Set design: Bob Chaves. Stage manager: Mariel Berlin-Fischler . Produced by Peter’s Alley Productions . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
Closes Oct 19
Eliza Anna Falk . DCMetroTheaterArts deeply moving and heartbreaking story of mourning,