Theater Review

Down the Rabbit Hole

Theatre Southwest’s rendition of the Pulitzer Prize–winning play stages the wages of grief.

By Doni Wilson February 23, 2016

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In David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole, Becca and Howie Corbett grieve over losing their only son, Danny, to a terrible accident. Theater Southwest’s production of the play has much to be admired. The small theater allows the audience to be so close to the players that you feel that you are almost sitting in the living room or kitchen with them—the set ingeniously including everything but the characters’ own bedroom, a reminder of their strained intimacy after the death of Danny.

The couple, played by Kelly Walker and Jonathan Moonen, dramatize how difficult it is to negotiate such profound grief within a marriage, as well as with other family members, notably Becca’s mother and sister. Within the framework of surviving loss (Becca’s mother Nat has also lost her son—though not to a car accident, but to drugs) is how to deal with the anger that inevitably ensues after loss: Both Izzy, Becca’s sister, and Becca herself, succumb to physical violence against others who have pushed their buttons, emphasizing how anger is sometimes channeled into the most unlikely avenues—though it must be channeled somewhere. Izzy, who opens the play admitting she hit another woman in a bar, says, “To punch someone—it really hurts!”

A significant component of this play examines how we indirectly deal with grief and each other. When Becca and Izzy bring their respective outrages to Howie, he is constantly telling them to confront the person who is upsetting them directly, instead of using him as a whipping boy or a go-between. He has a point. 

For a play rife with grief, there are comic moments—the actors all have an excellent sense of timing, with both the serious confession and the quick retort—all colors on the spectrum of grief and what we like to call “recovery.” But this play suggests that there is no real “recovery,” but that, as Nat says, there is a place to get to where things can become “bearable.”

Part of the power of this production comes from Becca’s skepticism at the pop psychology of our times: group therapy, whether or not to keep remnants of the past or start anew, whether or not to forgive or stay stuck in the downward spiral of loss. These are all good questions, and ones that will never go away. Izzy says at one point: “Don’t judge me.” Yet all the characters are asking for this one way or another—they are all coping the best they can, knowing that for grief, “I didn’t realize there was a cut—off date.” But in a culture that seems to require a compulsory positive spin on all things terrible, the pressures of that emotional deadline are real. The real fear, as Becca’s questions betray, is that “it never ends.”

So much of the play is how we can’t cope with grief, or if we do, we are either apologetic (“I’m sorry if you think that’s abnormal!”) or hopeless (We’re never going to be ready.”) It’s a tough gig, knowing how to live in that rabbit hole, with even the experiences of others proving insufficient to help. Plus, we have to figure out the metaphysics and justice of death, defaulting to the famous because our own losses are too much to bear.

The specter of the “accident”—whether it be Danny’s death, or Becca’s erasing of the last video tape they had of him, or Izzy’s pregnancy—lends itself the the claustrophobic feeling of the set and the powerlessness the characters feel against the slings of outrageous and cruel fortune. Yet even as Becca has erased that video, everyone knows “it is impossible to erase him,” even though Howie accuses her of trying to do that. It’s a tough call. Becca and Howie say, “I am mourning—just like you!” and “It is too hard.” And we believe both of them. The trick is figuring out how “to deal.” As Nat says to Becca trying to console her: “I don’t know your rules, Becca.” The audience realized no one does—not even Becca herself.

Stephanie Rascoe Myers is a standout as Nat, the mother of two strong-willed women who have lost their sons. When she speaks her lines, it is less like watching a play than watching someone really say those sentences—as if you were observing a conversation with someone who has found the defense mechanisms to negotiate grief—right in front of you. When the actress seems more like a real person than “someone acting,” well, you cannot ask for anything more. Ms. Myers would do well on any stage—and really set the tone for the level of acting in this production.

Rabbit Hole reminds us that that is a harder enterprise when it comes to personal loss. The play itself, like Danny’s death, is “exactly the kind of thing that gives a person clarity”—or at least something to think when negotiating our own losses.

Thru March 12. $17; $15, seniors & students. Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. 713-661-9505.