Rabbit Hole — Burrowing Deep into Grief

By Amy J. Barry

If one were to judge the TheaterWorks production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole purely on its accurate portrayal of how people navigate the stages of grief following a profound loss, it would receive high marks.

Dylan Chalfy, Joey Parsons, Erika Rolfsrud, Alec Silberblatt, and Jo Twiss in

But what makes this drama—acutely directed by TheaterWorks associate artistic director Rob Ruggiero—even more compelling are the interactions between the fully fleshed-out characters, who are much more than the circumstances of their grief. They are unique human beings with particular strengths and quirks and family dynamics, who just happen to have been dealt a really rotten hand and are trying their best to carry on.

Rabbit Hole is the story of Becca (Erika Rolfsrud) and Howie (Dylan Chalfy), a couple whose young and only child was killed in an accident a year earlier. Like victims of war, it is about how, in the aftermath, this husband and wife attempt to process the tragedy and survive.

Rolfsrud poignantly portrays a woman, who, defined by her role as a mother, is now childless. In a show not tell opening scene, we watch Becca folding her son’s clothes in her spotless, granite-countered Larchmont, New York kitchen and realize it’s not to put them neatly away in his dresser drawers, but to donate to Goodwill. Becca holds her grief close to the vest, compartmentalizing and containing the rage in her Herculean baking and cleaning, until it inevitably erupts.

Meanwhile, Howie seems to be dealing with his grief better, or at least more openly, by talking about their son, Danny, and watching videos of them playing ball together. He accuses Becca of trying to get rid of any evidence that Danny existed. Chalfy genuinely expresses the extreme frustration and grief that his character is experiencing.

Due to Ruggerios’s sensitive direction that doesn’t take sides, we feel compassion toward both Becca and Howie. As the play progresses, we realize that neither is doing better or worse—they are just grieving differently and on different timetables.

The other characters that enhance the story include Becca’s sister Izzy (Joey Parsons). Izzy is perhaps too obviously Becca’s polar opposite as the goofy, free spirit, trauma-and-drama sister. But Izzy’s surprise pregnancy complicates and changes the siblings’ relationship and Parson’s skillfully depicts her unpredictable character’s unwavering desire to be a good person.

The sisters’ mother, Nat (Jo Twiss) starts off as a bit of a caricature. Brash and uneducated and clashing with her daughters, her background is oddly never alluded to and it’s never explained where Becca got her sophisticated tastes in literature and home furnishings. But Twiss connects us with Nat’s honesty and humanity in the second act—particularly in a very moving scene between mother and daughter, working together on the torturous task of cleaning out Danny’s bedroom.

Becca, whose brother died of a heroin addiction, ask her mother if it ever gets any easier. Nat assures her, “The weight of it gets less.” But she doesn’t sugarcoat it for her daughter. “You still carry it around like a brick in your pocket.”

The most heart wrenching and beautifully portrayed character is Jason (Alec Silberblatt) whose car hit Danny when the four-year-old ran into the road after his dog. Silberblatt is completely convincing as the teenager trying to deal with his own anguish and the anguish he has caused this family. As much a victim of cruel circumstances as they are, he clumsily tries to reach out, but with such good intentions, it’s almost painful to watch.

Luke Hegel-Cantarella has crafted an excellent backdrop for the play—a realistic, detailed set of a typical upper middleclass suburban house that one would never imagine it holds such a sad secret.

In the end Rabbit Hole isn’t maudlin and just like in real life, the hard stuff is balanced with humor. It’s about love and courage and forgiveness and doing whatever it takes to get you through.

Performances of Rabbit Hole continue through July 20 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street in downtown Hartford. Call 860-527-7838 for tickets or online www.theaterworkshartford.org.

(This review appears in 6/26/08 Living section of Shore Publishing Community Newspapers.)

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