'Rabbit Hole' – at RIC Nov. 18-22 – explores uncertain paths through a family’s tragedy

We would like to believe that in times of trouble people come together for sympathy and support. We can look to such national calamities as the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr.

But on the level of personal tragedy, our gauges are less reliable, especially in the long term, when the loss becomes interwoven with all aspects of daily life and the circle of fellow mourners grows more tightly circumscribed.

In the latter instance, we must look outside of news headlines to find our bearings. We must look to more intimate worlds, such as the one of David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole.”

The play, which won a 2007 Pulitzer and garnered a Tony-Award nomination for best play, will be staged by the Rhode Island College Mainstage Theatre from Nov. 18-21 at 8 p.m. and on Nov. 21 and 22 at 2 p.m. Performances will take place in the Nazarian Center’s Forman Theatre. Associate professor of theatre Jamie Taylor will direct.

“Rabbit Hole” deals with one of the most difficult of family tragedies, the death of a child, in particular that of a four-year-old boy in an auto accident precipitated by his chasing after the family dog.

The play was a departure for Lindsay-Abaire, who had previously penned such whimsical and grotesque comedies as “Fuddy Meers” and “Kimberly Akimbo.” The shift was aptly summarized by Ben Brantley in his highly favorable review of “Rabbit Hole” in The New York Times, “It is as if Mr. Lindsay-Abaire had set for himself the task of holding up a mirror to life that for once didn’t come from a fun house.”

Subsequently, the playwright’s versatility has been evidenced by the book and lyrics for “Shrek the Musical,” with two Tony Award nominations, and the script for “Spider-Man 4.”

The production that Brantley was writing about had some real star power behind it. Cynthia Nixon (“Sex and the City”) was cast as Becca, the mother, and won a Tony for best actress.

Howie, the father, was played by John Slattery (“Mad Men”), and Becca’s mother Nat by Tyne Daly (“Judging Amy”), who was nominated for a Tony.

A film version of the play is scheduled for release in 2010, with Nicole Kidman as Becca.

Jamie Taylor
From director Jamie Taylor’s perspective, the crux of the drama lies in how the characters struggle with the boy’s death. And the ways are divergent, adding tension to the marriage and eroding the couple’s intimacy.

The father, Howie, holds on: he repeatedly watches old home videos, wants to keep his son Danny’s room intact, and still loves the dog that led to his son’s death.

The mother, Becca, lets go: she compulsively tries to eliminate all traces, including clothes, toys and the dog. She even wants to sell the house.

Howie goes for counseling; Becca rejects it.

In addition, Becca’s mother Nat and her sister Izzy bring their own issues to the table.

Nat is living through the death of her own son from a heroine overdose. The advice she has, according to Taylor, is that “pain never goes way, but we just learn how to cope.”

Becca’s sister Izzy is a flamboyant type who follows the beat of her own drum, adding both comic moments and a smaller crisis – her ill-timed pregnancy.

Jason, the only character who is not a family member, is the teenage driver who accidentally kills Danny and who has a tough time dealing with the event.

A geeky type, Jason grieves in part by writing a story dedicated to the boy that involves Rabbit Holes, entities which connect parallel universes where theoretically Danny may still be alive. It is quite a stretch, but one not long enough for Becca to reject outright.

In assessing the characters’ approach to grieving, it is natural to question who is following the right road to recovery, which of them has the answer. But that is not where Lindsay-Abaire takes the audience.

Taylor elucidated this point: “They are all distinct characters dealing with loss in different ways. One character is not stronger than the other.

In a non-dress rehearsal, cast members of 'Rabbit Hole' prepare for the production.
“The audience will probably sympathize with the husband immediately. The mother seems to be a little cold at first, but there are moments when her emotions come through.”

Taylor also finds “Rabbit Hole” one of the most honest plays he has read, particularly because of the way it concludes.

“The audience will not be cheated by a Hollywood happy ending.” Taylor emphasized. “Two lives have been changed by trauma. They need answers but they can’t find answers. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We are not sure they’ll make it.”

In addition, Taylor pointed out that the play had a rather modest origin; it started out as a graduate school exercise when Lindsay-Abaire was at Juilliard. His teacher, Marsha Norman, best known for her Pulitzer Prize–winning play “’night, Mother,” told him to write about something that frightened him.

He had been reading stories about children dying, and “Rabbit Hole” was conceived.

That topic, the death of a child, is a difficult one to stage without approaching bathos, Taylor conceded.

“You have to train the actors how to act the subtle moments and not be over dramatic,” he said. “You have to think smaller, intense, and internal rather than bigger, broader and external.”

One of those actors is Allison Crews, a senior theatre major from Franklin, Mass., who is cast as Becca. Also appearing are Samantha Acampora as Izzy, Jeffrey Church as Howie, Tara Gray as Nat and Adam D. Bram as Jason.

While Crews did admit to feeling a bit “intimidated” about following in the footsteps of Cynthia Nixon and Nicole Kidman, she emphasized that acting styles were a secondary consideration to keeping Becca’s trauma foremost in mind.

Allison Crews plays Becca in 'Rabbit Hole'.
“I will have to do a lot of meditation before the performance,” she admitted. “Right now I have to drop into the character before each rehearsal.

“What is also important is how I relate to the other characters. The biggest challenge for me is interacting with Jason [the teenage driver] because in reality I would find it hard to place myself in the mother’s position.

“Interacting with Howie is also going to be a challenge. I really need to explore how they interacted as a couple before the death of their son, in order to discover the nature of their marriage after his death.”

Research, however, is helping Crews step into Becca’s mind. Taylor has the cast exploring the idea of bereavement through websites, pamphlets and brochures.

For instance, it is helping her understand her character’s negative reaction to counseling, especially when it involves, as Becca describes it, “a roomful of God freaks.”

Crews found a lot of false comfort being espoused on the websites and sympathized with Becca on being uncomfortable with it. There were numerous instances of seeking justification for a child’s death, when realistically there is none, along with such sentimental notions as “God needed another angel.”

Keeping these considerations in mind, one finds it curious that Becca would be attracted to the ideas of Rabbit Holes and parallel universes, which Crews referred to as “a place where things go your way.”

But that is emblematic of the struggle to find answers that never materialize, and that helped spark Crews’ interest in ”Rabbit Hole.”

“When I first read it,” she said, “I wanted be a part of it. It didn’t have the normal structure with a definite beginning, middle and end. There wasn’t just one climax.

“The play presented a huge loss and how the characters dealt with it. But there was no resolution, which is realistic. It wasn’t a traditionally formatted play.”

While the idea of an ending without a well-defined conclusion may seem an unsettling dramatic alternative, it can also be viewed as a unique portal – a Rabbit Hole that allows the audience to step into the unmediated universe of Danny’s survivors.

Tickets for “Rabbit Hole” are $15 and are available through the Roberts Hall Box Office. For more information, call (401) 456-8144.

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