If you ask me…

-    Tom Holehan

PULITZER PRIZE WINNER AT THEATERWORKS

There’s a reason that Hartford TheaterWorks was cited by the Connecticut Critics Circle recently for producing the year’s best play, David Harrower’s “Blackbird”. The plucky theatre company – arguably one of the best regional theatres in the state – continues to make smart choices each season. In addition to “Blackbird”, their current series has also included some of the finest contemporary plays around including John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Doubt” and Douglas Carter Beane’s modern comedy of manners “The Little Dog Laughed”.

Presently the theatre is offering another Pulitzer Prize winner, David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole”, a contemporary drama about the reverberations felt by family members after the death of a child. It is without question a small masterpiece and one of the best-written modern works in recent theatre history. (Full disclosure: I directed a production of “Rabbit Hole” last February, so the play is near and dear to my heart!)

“Rabbit Hole” picks up a few months after the tragedy where parents Becca and Howie are still in various stages of grief over the loss of Danny, their four-year-old son, who was killed chasing his dog into oncoming traffic. Howie has taken to bereavement groups and watching old videos of his deceased son. Becca deals with the loss in a torrent of organization and housecleaning – “erasing” all traces of her son’s existence in an effort to bury the pain. Becca’s flaky sister, Izzy, pregnant and unmarried and her mother, Nat, a coarse but loving woman, both attempt to break through Becca’s reserve with varying degrees of success. Into the family mix stumbles Jason, the conflicted teenager who was driving the car that hit Danny.

Although “Rabbit Hole” sounds like the ultimate downer, rest assured that so honest, true and heartfelt is Lindsay-Abaire’s writing that the play ultimately serves as an oasis of hope for anyone who has ever suffered loss. The playwright also leavens the proceedings greatly with warm, loving humor. Audiences will be surprised how often they are laughing – sometimes through tears – with this beautifully observed and humane new drama. 

TheaterWorks’ accomplished director Rob Ruggiero staged this production with the same cast and designers at the Pittsburg Public Theatre before moving it to Hartford. The theatre is fortunate to have Erika Rolfsrud playing Becca, who was the understudy in the original Broadway cast of “Rabbit Hole”. Ms. Rolfsrud offers a technically proficient and emotional portrait but, at this point in Hartford, it also seems a tad on auto-pilot. It is more mannered than actually felt and very much a performance that is playing for end results. Her chemistry with Dylan Chalfy – giving a sensitive, knowing performance as Howie – is also lacking though it must be observed that tension between the two should, ultimately, be part of the drama. Still, there’s a fine line between understanding Becca’s actions and finding her unlikable. Rolfsrud’s crucial breakthrough late in act two is done with all the right actorly emotion, but I never felt it was truly earned.

In supporting roles, the key part of Jason seems, sadly, beyond the scope of young Alec Silberblatt but better news can be found in the performances of Joey Parsons, as an energetic and fully engaged Izzy and Jo Twiss, wringing every possible laugh out of Nat’s formidable persona. If some of the character’s pathos is lost in the process, the audience I sat with didn’t seem to mind. Ms. Twiss is clearly a crowd-pleaser.

The rich Scarsdale setting – though somewhat crowded on TheaterWorks’ intimate stage – is very nicely appointed by designer Luke Hegel-Cantarella and Anne Kenney’s costuming is right on target especially with the subtle Goth touches selected for Izzy. Best of all, any excuse to experience Mr. Lindsay-Abaire’s gorgeously written and felt play is worth the effort. Its sentiment is earned every step of the way and, even in a lesser production, this is a timeless drama that I would welcome seeing revived annually.

“Rabbit Hole” continues at TheaterWorks through July 20. For further information and ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.527.7838 or visit: www.theaterworkshartford.org.

Tom Holehan is co-founder of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tom@stratford.lib.ct.us. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

            This review originally appeared in Elm City Newspapers on July 2, 2008

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