Heller Theatre opened its new facility last week with a play that is emotionally gripping and, for someone whose hormones haven't quite settled back to normal after giving birth 16 months ago, exhausting.
Directed by Erin Scarberry, David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole gives audiences a view inside a grieving household, still in shambles over the death of their 4-year-old son eight months prior.
As the play opens in a suburban, middle-class home, the presence of a child is still apparent. Toys and books occupy the downstairs bookshelves, and, upstairs, a twin-sized bed is dressed in Superman sheets and covered with toys and stuffed animals.
At the kitchen table, Becca (Cassie Hollis) folds child-sized clothing as she listens to her sister Izzy (Sadi Boren) tell a vivid story about the previous night's events, during which she punched a woman in a bar.
Even as she replays the tale, it is apparent that Izzy is treading lightly, so as not to crush the hundreds of eggshells that seem to litter the floor of her sister's home--especially as she reveals to Becca that she is pregnant.
That night, Becca tells her husband Howie (David Lawrence) Izzy's news. He's a mild-mannered, reasonable fellow also obviously aware of stepping on eggshells around his wife. What grief she's coping with hasn't been revealed to us yet, but it's obviously making her high-strung and slightly combative. She angrily interrupts her husband's attempts at romance to pack up their son's room.
Although the accident that took her son affected the entire family, Becca is unable to share the burden of her grief with anyone. In addition to her son's death, she faces an identity crisis. She quit working to be a stay-at-home mother, and now she's not sure what she should do.
As the play progresses, Becca grows more angry and argumentative. She's hurt by her sister's pregnancy and annoyed with her mother's (Susan Apker) attempts to console her by comparing Becca's tragedy to her own--the death of her son 25 years ago. But Becca is incapable of believing that anyone could possibly be as hurt as she is, and any attempts at consolation fail miserably.
In the second act, she's faced with her son's killer, an awkward, bumbling teenager named Jason (Sean Harris) who wants to meet the family in an attempt to find some closure of his own.
Although Howie is infuriated by his request, Becca meets him and finds solace in a science fiction story he's written in which a boy searches for his father by traveling through rabbit holes. Jason tells Becca that rabbit holes are alternate universes where multiples of the same person exist, living different versions of the same life.
In the end, nothing is fine, and nothing is all better. Becca and Howie have no idea whether or not anything will ever be better, what the future holds, what their next step will be or if they're prepared to handle any of it. All they know is, ready or not, life goes on, and they have to go on with it.
Rabbit Hole won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and it is remarkably written. His characters are real, relatable people, and he so vividly and honestly writes about grief and sorrow.
One of the play's perfections lies in that it does not romanticize grief.
Grief is an ugly pain, and it makes the people it affects do terrible, ugly things sometimes. The beautiful part, in this case, is how well that grief is portrayed by the actors Scarberry has chosen, who are so adept at conveying meaning and emotion.
The real challenge to the actors was to convey the sorrow Abaire wrote so beautifully while also keeping it sincere and realistic. Because his characters are so real and his play so emotionally charged, it would be easy for novice actors to take it over-the-top and for a novice director to allow them to. But that never happens.
Under Scarberry's direction, each actor gives a performance that is well-paced and honest. They beautifully portray the many facets of emotion any person faced with the death of a child would feel, and that is what makes it so heart wrenching to watch--it is so, so real.
And while the audience can easily sympathize with the characters, the play is never sentimental.
Also adding to the intense realism of the whole thing is the set. Scarberry spared no detail in crafting the set with painstaking attention. The set doesn't just reveal a home; it is one. Any of the audience members would have felt comfortable lounging on the sofa, feet propped on the coffee table, flipping channels while her children play with Spider-man dolls and dump trucks upstairs.
Rabbit Hole continues this weekend, Sept. 24-26 at 8pm and Sept. 27 at 2pm. Heller Theatre at Henthorne is at 4825 S. Quaker. Despite the move and the fact that Heller has been on a nearly one-year hiatus, the theater was full opening night, so I suggest calling 746-5065 to make reservations
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