The origins of this production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole reach back two to three years, back when John Nara’s Simply New Theater was riding high with stylish productions of Martin McDonagh’s Pillow Man and Shaun Davey’s James Joyce’s The Dead. For Rabbit Hole, a Pulitzer winner, Nara wanted to cast Shannon Tompkins in the lead role of Becca, a Tony-winning part for Cynthia Nixon. But Nara left town a year ago, and the project foundered, until now, when his instincts are proven sound.
Rabbit Hole appears under the ad-hoc aegis of DCS Full Circle Theater at the little-used St. Clare Gardens at Assumption Church on the city’s North Side, but the whole venture has a pedigree. “DCS” comes from the family name in plural, DeCooks, which includes director Jenn DeCook and husband Todd, the latter having built a set to evoke an affluent household in Larchmont, N.Y. Jenn DeCook has her own street cred, starting with an association with Nara going back to Simply New’s first manifestation two decades ago, as well as with Salt City Center for the Performing Arts. She directed the much-acclaimed world premiere of Garrett Heater’s Lizzie Borden Took an Axe in 2010.
Reducing the plot to a Twitter line, Rabbit Hole can easily be misunderstood. A professional-class household of diverse characters reacts to the death of a small boy named Danny in a traffic accident, eight months before the beginning of the action. It sounds like a TV movie promising lots of tears and recrimination, and film director John Cameron Mitchell’s dreary art house version in 2010 choked off what makes the play compelling. Not only is there unexpected humor in the stage script and resonant silent patches, but how characters react to one another—sometimes hearing them, sometimes not—is how we get to a conclusion. Most of the dialogue in Rabbit Hole is conversational and workaday, with meanings all flowing under the surface. The timing of live performance lets us perceive that more readily.
Becca was once a working professional and is now a stay-at-home mom for a boy no longer there. She’s married to Howie (David T. Walker), who commutes to the city for what looks like a well-paying job. Despite the decline in their sex life (her complaint), they have a passably good marriage, and neither partner is a predator nor troublemaker. They both are grieving Danny in their own ways, but Howie reveals an unwelcome vein of suspicion. When Becca accidentally tapes over footage of the boy (the action is set in the VHS era), Howie heatedly and hurtfully accuses her of doing it on purpose.
The exchange does not make Howie a bully or Becca an unfeeling deceiver, but rather reveals that under the stress of unrelieved grief we express emotions that otherwise would never get out, and also inflict wounds on people we care about. Audience members know this, because figuring out what to say to a loving survivor is damned difficult. How we live with and then pull out of this torment is much of what Rabbit Hole is about.
Tension and pain sound like poor premises for comedy, which is just why we need it. Enter Becca’s family, her expansive, free-speaking mother Nat (Nora O’Dea) and her less-than-domestic sister Izzy (Sara Caliva). O’Dea plays Nat as possibly a little blowsier than what would go in tony Larchmont, but not so much as to undercut her tabloidish fascination with the Kennedy “curse.” In an error of catastrophic unprepossession, Nat commiserates with her daughter, reminded that she too lost a son, Arthur, before his time. “Yeah, he was a heroin addict who hanged himself,” responds Becca.
Darker and foxier, Izzy hardly looks like Becca’s sister at all. A lively party girl, Izzy finds herself pregnant by an unseen boyfriend, Auggie. Izzy’s aggressive manner is one thing, but Becca’s learning that a new life is growing within her sister becomes a strident reminder of loss.
Another player unexpectedly appears in the first act. DeCook has him stand up in the audience and begin speaking. He’s Jason (Nick Ziobro), and at first we don’t know what he’s about. Responding to a sign that Howie and Becca’s house is for sale, he knocks on the door and tries to enter, only to be sternly rebuffed by Howie. Becca knows who he is, however: He’s the teen whose driving is complicit in Danny’s death.
Against Howie’s wishes, Becca meets further with Jason. Even without tears, Jason cares deeply about the family his actions have hurt. He speaks of parallel universes and introduces the rabbit hole metaphor of the title, an allusion to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books. In her program notes, director DeCook cites that the play is linked to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief, with the five characters speaking for each one. Maybe so. In a play so festooned with literary allusions, many to Dickens’ Bleak House, an obvious if ancient model seems likely. Consider the reconciliation between grieving parent Priam and killer Achilles that Homer places at the end of The Iliad.
For a start-up company DCS Full Circle has credibility as well as pedigree. Director DeCook draws polished performances from experienced players. David T. Walker has played this kind of character before, but his gruffness is appropriately threatening and he can produce tears on cue. Nick Ziobro is beguiling as Jason, both courageous and tender. Experienced pro Nora O’Dea will not be upstaged for laughs. And Sara Caliva makes sexiness feel aggressive, even threatening.
Playwright Lindsay-Abaire, previously neglected locally, will have three works produced here within a year. The Syracuse University Drama Department produced his early absurdist comedy Fuddy Mears in November, and Syracuse Stage will give us his Good People next season. Putting aside invidious comparison between professional and non-professional company, Rabbit Hole might be the best literary property of the three. t
This production runs through Saturday, April 28. See Times Table for information.