He constructs a through line illuminating the play’s use of parallelism in a dual context that insures that the ending makes sense to the audience. The story thus seems more organic than episodic, as is a danger with this script, and that is a major accomplishment by Cannon. It almost makes sense to me now that it got a Pulitzer Prize, and I can see why a reader would think it’s extraordinary. However, it can be argued (and of course, I’m going to) that it is very difficult to feel emotion that goes beyond admiration when the show is performed.
Jenni Ryan plays Becca Corbett and Christopher Hickey is her husband, Howie. She is a housewife, and Howie works, ironically under the circumstances, as a risk manager because the defining event of their lives is the accidental death of their four-year-old son, Danny. The family dog, Taz, got out of the yard through a gate left unlocked (by Howie) while his mother was on the phone (not watching the boy) and Danny chased Taz into the street. A car driven by an inexperienced teenaged driver, Jason (Rahamses Galvan) swerved to avoid the dog and hit the child who he did not see. When the play opens, it is eight months after the accident.
Becca is in the kitchen folding a small boy’s clothing, which becomes poignant as we soon learn their owner is dead. She’s talking with her flighty sister, Izzy (Lara Buck) who is telling about punching out a woman in a bar. The proper Becca thinks that’s dreadful behavior, but Izzy is one of those free spirits who is very attractive, curses a lot, and has a reputation for her wild behavior. In fact, she hit the ex-girlfriend (as she tells it) of her now-boyfriend who is also the father of the child Izzy is expecting. When she tells Becca about the pregnancy, it takes the older sister a few moments to process the information, but she recovers nicely and at least pretends to be happy. She even offers Izzy the clothes, which are intended for Goodwill, but Izzy declines on the grounds of creepiness.
Becca is a tightly wound bundle of nerves who holds herself together by keeping things in order, cooking and baking a lot (it would be nice if the kitchen set at least nodded at the presence of a stove) and wiping away traces of Danny anywhere she finds them. In one unlikely moment, she finds a toy partway under a chair and waves it in the more overtly sentimental Howie’s face, saying she doesn’t want these reminders around. Come on, now. It’s been a long time and Becca is a careful housekeeper. Why is that toy still there? The unlikelihood of that happening makes the whole scene ring false. A more genuine moment occurs when Izzy asks if she can eat the “extra” dessert she finds, a subtle reminder of Danny’s absence in body but presence in spirit. Becca reluctantly gives it to her, but asserts her control by making sure Izzy eats it “right”; that is, upended on a plate rather than directly from its dish.
Admirably, Becca and Howie don’t blame each other for Danny’s death, and more generously still, they don’t blame Jason who contacts them, hoping to meet. He encloses a short story for his school paper that he wants to dedicate to Danny who, he knew from the obituary, liked robots and sci fi, just as Jason himself does. The piece is about “rabbit holes” that lead to parallel universes with versions of our own selves under different or at least altered circumstances. When Becca does invite Jason over to talk, he lets her know he truly believe in this phenomenon, and Becca says, “You mean somewhere else in the universe, I’m happy?” It’s good to see Jason’s grief honored, as well as that of Danny’s family.
The central dilemma for Becca and Howie seems to be that they are on different grief timetables, plus they are individuals who respond to this crisis in singular ways. Howie loves to watch old tapes of Danny; Becca “accidentally” records over the most recent and detailed one. Taz, the dog, has been banished to Becca’s mother’s house, but Howie wants him back. In fact, when he says, “I want him back,” he’s nominally referring to the dog, but the line is fraught with meaning. He misses Danny’s “stuff” like his pictures decorating the ‘fridge. And yet, when Becca wants to sell the house and Howie goes along with it, he is willing to follow Izzy’s advice and strip Danny’s room of all the little boy things, so prospective buyers don’t ask about his son and get bummed out when he tells them what happened.
Earlier in the play, we meet Nat, Becca and Izzy’s mom, at a small family celebration for Izzy’s birthday. As Becca is serving her homemade (of course) cake, Nat is going on and on about the “Kennedy curse.” And in this character, the play has its treasure: Donna Weinsting. Before, I’ve found the mother character annoying, which she is, no matter who plays her, but Weinsting can pull off insensitive and endearing at the same time. She makes the very most of the comic moments in the play, of which there are surprisingly many, and can turn on a dime when she talks about the loss of her own son and the process of grief. Self-centered Becca doesn’t think her and her mother’s losses are comparable because her brother was a “30-year-old heroin addict who committed suicide,” but she is wrong. The two women cleaning out and sorting Danny’s possessions is the high point of the show, and another comes when we’re told about an incident in a grocery store that leads Nat to step in.
Izzy hears a rumor about her brother-in-law and asks him about it, leading them to an angry confrontation. He still attends a parents’ grief group, and Becca doesn’t because she can’t “get with the program.” All these people are going on about God and wallowing in bromides like “God needed another angel.” Becca has no use whatsoever for God, and when her mother calls her on it, Becca tells her that if there is a god, he’s just like her father who demanded “worship,” and in turn, would treat his family well. Becca prefers a continuing education class she’s taking where no one knows her and the focus is on literature. (The irony that the first book they’re reading is Bleak House and the next Madame Bovary is not lost on her though.)
William Schmiel’s set provides a comfortable and spacious-feeling family home with kitchen, living room, and Danny’s room above. Warm tones give a sense of coziness and security that no longer exist. (“Things aren’t NICE anymore,” Becca says angrily at one point.) Sean Savoie’s lighting is appropriate, and the most poignant touch to me is that a nightlight still burns in Danny’s room. Costumes by David Gray are what one would expect middle class suburbanites to wear on Becca and Howie, flashier on Izzy (in the beginning, anyway) and flashiest on Nat, a nice touch, as she swans about in her glitzy tops. Nat is monumentally insensitive at times, but her daughter could do worse than follow her example.
Cynthia Nixon won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Becca on Broadway, and this isn’t surprising because it’s a difficult part. Ryan has the stiffness and focus on control down, but I didn’t feel the grief beneath, and I know she can play a bereaved mother beautifully, as she did in Grace and Glorie a couple of seasons back. Hickey’s Howie is written to be more relaxed on the surface than Becca, so the actor is able to make him more relatable. Both Howie and Becca have breakdowns, but not with each other, and while these moments are uncomfortable, they don’t seem entirely authentic.
Rabbit Hole is beautifully constructed with parallels throughout leading to the final moments where the Corbetts will or will not find themselves aligned—to be each other’s true north—so genuine recovery can begin. Overall, Rabbit Hole is the very definition of a well-made play on the page, and on the stage is still worth your time.
Rabbit Hole is at Insight Theatre Company through Oct. 2. You may visit www.insighttheatrecompany.com. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 St. Louis.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT