Reviewed by George Basler
Grief and loss are among the most dominant human emotions, and David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Rabbit Hole explores both with a clear-eyed sharpness that is free of bathos and theatrical sentimentality.
This first-rate play opened this past weekend (Sept. 16-18) and will run the next two weekends at the KNOW Theatre in downtown Binghamton. The production is an effective one that has real emotional heft as it focuses on a husband and wife struggling with the death of a child, and the impact this struggle has on other family members.
While the play is serious, it is never morose or glum. Credit goes to Lindsay-Abaire, who has sprinkled moments of humor throughout the play (yes, humor) along with the dramatic tension.
The playwright downplays showy emotional fireworks and instead subtly reveals the couple’s quiet desperation as Howie and Becca (Jeff Tagliaferro and Joanna Patchett) go through the routines of daily life: doing the laundry, going to work, baking, etc.
This approach, well played by the KNOW cast, heightens the emotional rawness of the moments when the couple’s pain breaks through their mundane routine.
The other characters are Nat (Lynette Daniels), Becca’s overbearing mother; Izzy (Kirsten Whistle), Becca’s free-spirited sister, and Jason (Jacob Donlin), the high school student who accidentally ran over the couple’s four-year-old son.
Credit goes to director Tim Gleason, who is also KNOW’s artistic director, who has drawn measured, totally believable performances from the entire cast.
There are some issues, however. The pacing in the first act is a bit slow with too many pregnant pauses. Also, the scene changes seem overly long as props are rearranged. These moments take the audience out of the play.
The pacing in the second act is far crisper, and Gleason’s direction is more assured. His direction is especially strong in a scene in which Becca finally releases her pent-up emotions in a meeting with Jason and in a scene in which Howie and Becca reach a sense of closure that is both hopeful and open-ended.
As Howie, Tagliaferro gives a finely tuned, complex portrayal of a character whose surface calm and level headedness are covering up a seething anger. This fury explodes at key moments in the play. Howie’s reaction to discovering that Becca mistakenly taped over a video of their dead son is especially blistering.
While Howie is a simmering volcano, Becca has become a bitter and bruised ice queen who is working to suppress all emotions. Patchett gives a suitably restrained and intelligent performance as she uses stiff body language and facial expressions to portray a woman working to bury her feelings. This restraint makes the moment when Becca finally lets her emotions overcome her a cathartic one.
Much of Rabbit Hole’s dark humor comes from Izzy, a borderline trainwreck of a woman who is working to put her life together. Whistle gives a skillful and spirited performance as the character, who drops one-liners throughout the play. But the character is far more than comic relief. Whistle makes her a fully rounded human being who is trying to provide comfort to her sister even as she works to put her own life in order.
Daniels effectively plays the mother character whose lack of tact is a prominent trait. While the character borders on a stereotype, Lindsay-Abaire’s writing, and Daniels’ performance, makes her someone you understand and sympathize with. This is most clearly revealed in a scene in the second act when the mother remembers her own dead son (Becca’s brother). The scene, as played by Daniels, is touching and truthful.
Finally, Donlin does a first-rate job in the smaller, but pivotal, role of the teenager who killed the couple’s son. Lindsay-Abaire’s decision to introduce this character initially comes out of left field. But, in the end, it adds another strong dimension to the play. Donlin totally nails the role. The music and theater arts major at SUNY Broome realistically conveys the awkwardness of a teenager who is struggling with his own sense of guilt. The performance is a remarkably mature one for someone Donlin’s age.
One of the best things about Rabbit Hole is that the characters come across as a real family with real tensions, real hurts and complex love for each other. For much of the play, Howie and Becca seem unable to comfort each other, instead putting up a wall for reasons they can’t explain. At the end, though, this wall seems to be coming down.
In short, don’t think you’re in for gloomy evening with Rabbit Hole. It’s a wonderful play, not a weepy heart tugger. KNOW’s production, is compelling throughout.
IF YOU GO: Rabbit Hole runs weekends through Oct.1 at the KNOW Theater, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m. An 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22, performance will be “Pay-what-you-can.” There will be no third Sunday (Oct. 2) show for this production; instead, there will be a second Thursday show on Sept. 29. Tickets are $25 ($20 for seniors, $15 for students). Visit www.knowtheatre.org.