It may be apocryphal, but W. C. Fields once said, “Never work with animals or children.” Well, if he had held true to that credo then he certainly wouldn’t have been cast in “Where All Good Rabbits Go,” enjoying its East Coast premiere at Thrown Stone up in Ridgefield. There aren’t any children in Karina Cochran’s engaging play, but there are some animals: one that slowly transforms from a man into a rabbit and one that is just a rabbit (a real twitching little bunny). The transforming man-rabbit is the centerpiece of the play, its controlling metaphor, and as such presents no distraction. As for the real bunny, well, when it is introduced near the end of the play and placed center stage in a pen I can guess the audience members’ eyes couldn’t help but flick back and forth between the human actors and the little creature hopping around, blithely upstaging without intending to, thus justifying the wisdom of Fields’ dictum.
Bunny distraction aside, Cochran’s play is a gentle, heartfelt meditation on life, love and the stages we go through as we either prepare to confront our own mortality or deal with the impending loss of a loved one. It sounds a bit morbid, but it is really life-affirming without the soap-opera histrionics. Directed by Cyrus Newitt, this study in the descent into darkness (if that’s what it is) is a poignant portrait of how the human awareness of time and its termination can be dealt with.
So, the controlling metaphor. Well, we are introduced to Walter (Jason Peck), a farmer who has, at the start of the play, grown a fluffy black tail, the first indication that he is afflicted. With what? It doesn’t matter. The “rabbit disease” might stand for cancer, but there are many other debilitating illnesses that slowly develop and, in the process, change and redefine who we are. For purposes of the play, it’s becoming a rabbit, and as the evening progresses Walter becomes hairier and begins to hop, sure signs that the disease, as diagnosed by a doctor, Dorn (Mike Boland), is progressing. Confronted with this, Walter’s wife, Julia (Alexandra Bazan), must travel the road from denial to acceptance to, ultimately, grief and letting go, allowing her rabbit-husband to be taken to where all good rabbits go.
All of this is played out on a set, designed by Fufan Zhang, that is meant to make a statement, but what that is quite honestly escaped me. White dominates, with accent lines of black. I mean everything is white, from the couch and the throw rug to the vacuum cleaner and the bottle of wine on a table. It’s stark, to say the least…and obviously intentional. Perhaps it’s meant to convey the sterility of many hospital wards, or perhaps it emphasizes the idea that we’re dealing here with the black-and-white issue of life and death. In any event, it doesn’t detract from the production, just puzzles.
Bazan and Peck, both Equity actors, turn in commendable performances. Bazan, as Julia, is at first upbeat and positive as she confronts the possibility that her husband is ill. After all, the growth of the tail could mean many things. As her husband takes on more rabbit qualities, she gradually slips into denial and then, finally, acceptance. Then, at the end of the play she is required to deliver lines to the twitching, hopping bunny, something she does with a great deal of aplomb.
Peck is called on to become a rabbit and, for the last half of the show, must hop and exhibit an uncontrollable desire to consume vegetables. Again, we’re dealing with metaphor here, so what we are really seeing and experiencing is a man confronting his own mortality as the “disease” begins to define and consume him. An actor might be tempted to go over-the-top with this, but Peck handles his character’s transformation with style and grace.
The play is effective and moving for many reasons, chief among them is that there is probably not an audience member who has not experienced, in one way or another, what Julia goes through, for all loved ones must eventually pass. The rabbit transformation may, at first, seem a bit ludicrous, and does evoke initial laughter, but it’s a smart move on playwright Cochran’s part, for it allows everyone to relate, regardless of the cause of their loved one’s passing – everything from cancer to Alzheimer’s. The simple fact is that, regardless of the cause, impending death brings inevitable change to the person approaching his or her demise, a withering or, if you will, a remodeling of both body and personality.
“Where all Good Rabbits Go” runs, in repertory with “The Arsonists,” until August 4. For tickets or more information go to www.thrownstone.org.