By Dave Rabjohn
Rabbit Hole, by American writer David Lindsay-Abaire, is the story of acute grief and its impact on relationships, families, and individual psyches. Choices people make on their road through grief are displayed in raw terms in this award-winning play that is now presented at Theatre Scarborough by the Scarborough Players. A number of strong performances elevate this production although some aspects seem flat and lacking in energy and pace.
We open with Becca who is folding a basket of children’s clothes while bantering with her sister Izzy. The play slowly helps us realize that Becca’s four year old son has died in an accident involving his chasing a dog into the street and the unfortunate timing of a passing car. It has been a number of months and Becca and her husband Howie are managing grief in very different ways. Input from the mercurial Izzy and the well meaning but meddlesome mother, Nat, provide complication as well as various insights. The young, guilt ridden driver of the car gives us further insight into grief analysis as his efforts at connecting with the family produce awkward reactions. The audience is challenged with various truths about grieving, but the ending seems rather empty.
The opening scene feels flat as there is almost no passion between the sisters. Lines are delivered automatically and little tension is delivered even with the entrance of Howie. Understanding that emotion and pace need to build incrementally from a calmer beginning, this beginning was almost flat-line. Some lines were difficult to hear as actors walked away from the audience. Energy did pick up as Becca (played by Alex Saul) and Howie (played by Holm Bradwell) launch into their first main argument giving us a window into Becca’ distancing from her son and Howie’s need to hold on.
Alex Saul’s performance was the backbone of this production. All of her skills were slowly presented as the play moved forward. She creates these hollow, angry, searching eyes that rivet both her husband and the audience. Ms. Saul knows how to enunciate without a word. Another highlight is her ability to paste on a smile that no one is buying – even herself. The tension of the meeting with Jason finally breaks with the classic contrast between Jason’s bright narrative about prom and Becca’s devolving into tears. Her breakdown is thoroughly genuine – both aching and subtle at once. Director Maureen Lukie makes some fine decisions as she allows Ms. Saul to lead the cast – an example is blocking in the second act where Becca paces around the kitchen describing the grocery store scene while the other characters are still.
Holm Bradwell, as Howie, demonstrates subtlety as the tortured father who presents us with a mask. The first cracks develop as we observe him obsessed with video tapes – as he watches his son we start to see his breathing increase and his chest slowly moving up and down – a great, quiet performance. We also observe Mr. Bradwell’s ability to explode as he chases Jason away even though he knows his behaviour is inappropriate. Kerry Lamb as the impulsive sister demonstrates physical humour and timing that parallels her chaotic life. Her legs and arms are always flopping and busy as she crawls awkwardly onto furniture (much like a four year old?)
Mickey Brown’s strong performance as the mother Nat is most demonstrated in her second act dialogue with Becca as they clean out the bedroom. She seems to make Ms. Saul’s acting more animated. Nat’s character is charged with most of the comic relief in the play but some comic opportunities were not fully realized. Davis Okey, playing the young awkward Jason was at times too awkward and nervous as some lines speeded up and became lost. Mr. Okey had a good grasp of situations that required meaningful pauses.
Mentioned earlier were some pacing problems. An example would be Nat’s call for more wine which took forever to get fulfilled. The action almost halted until she was satisfied. This was balanced by some strong pacing in the scenes with Jason and Howie and in the confrontation between Izzy and Howie.
The set design by Arash Eshghpour was sharp and serviceable. The domination of the elevated child’s bedroom served the theme of inescapable grief. The sound design by Dan Schaumann was particularly effective. Mournful strings enhanced the lonely themes of loss and struggle.
Mr. Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer prize- winning writing has obvious strength and depth as he examines the psychological toll of grief and the complexity of blame. The ending however seems hollow as it founders on the “we’ll see” moment. Oftentimes this kind of examination into life leaves us with heartening and discerning questions that help with understanding – and Rabbit Hole does some of that. Unfortunately it also raises that more frivolous question – where is the sequal?
Playing at Theatre Scarborough through to September 21, 2019. For more information see the website.