by David Lindsay-Abaire
New Century Theatre
Dir. Ed Golden
Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts
July 22nd 2008
David Lindsay-Abaire has something of a line in notably troubled females. At the heart of his breakthrough play Fuddy Meers is an amnesiac who awakens every day with her mind a complete blank; Wonder of the World features a runaway wife on a belated search for a self; and Kimberly Akimbo focuses on a waifish sixteen-year old girl with a rare disease that speeds the aging process (she is played by an actress in her sixties). Lindsay-Abaire has a deft hand with wacky comedies of unmoored identity, at times reminiscent of Craig Lucas and Christopher Durang. In Rabbit Hole, however, the playwright is on a different track (and a critically successful one: Rabbit Hole won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007). The emphasis on the hearts and minds of female characters remains, but the trouble that moves them – and the action of the play – is more prosaic, and less conducive to jokes. It’s the accidental death of a small child. The new production by Northampton’s New Century Theatre makes the most of the play’s strengths but can’t quite overcome its weaknesses.
The play opens on a domestic scene: two sisters talking (and sniping) while one folds laundry. But this is not the routine scene we might expect: it slowly emerges that the elder sister, Becca (Cate Damon), is preparing clothing for a Goodwill donation, and that her child, Danny, has been dead for months. Her feckless younger sister Izzy (Sandra Blaney), fresh from a bar fight, heightens the tension when she reveals that she is pregnant. With one exception (more on that below), the characters are family members, and Becca is at odds with them all. Her husband Howie (played with alternating charm and desperation by Keith Langsdale) clings to any small reminder of his son, while Becca turns away from the unbearable presence of the child’s toys, drawings, clothes, and books. The most bitter outburst between the two takes place when Becca tapes over one of the last video cassettes with footage of Danny (the fact that she taped one of those ubiquitous disaster programs from the Weather Channel is a nice touch); Howie suspects her of doing it deliberately, and, at least for a moment, the audience wonders if he isn’t right. Lindsay-Abaire is not afraid of making Becca hard and unsympathetic at times, allowing the audience’s sympathy to drift towards other characters. Damon’s characterization adeptly captures the levels of grief, including its potential for solipsism, suggesting that Becca’s behavior is a response to losing not only a beloved son but also a sense of self: she is a former professional turned stay-at-home mom in Westchester County. Helpful suggestions that she go back to work, or even have another child, merely feed her rage. Damon at times in voice and gesture eerily channels Cynthia Nixon, who won a Tony for her work in the Manhattan Theatre Club production of the play. Perhaps this was not deliberate, but it was occasionally distracting. Rounding out the family is Becca and Izzy’s chatty tippler of a mom, Nat (played, thankfully with restraint, by Ellen Barry). Nat has one of the few truly comic scenes, a drunken attempt at analysis of the “Kennedy curse”; even this comic moment leads to conflict, when Becca easily sniffs out her mother’s attempt to convey a lesson about death and our attempts to give it meaning.
The first half is by far the stronger, with Ed Golden’s direction creating an almost Ibsenish sense of fierce psychological conflict within a family—a sense supported by the repeated talk of a familial fate . (At times in the first act Lindsay-Abaire’s play has the feel of a tragedy like Ghosts rewritten with soap-opera character types.) The cast is at their best in these early scenes. An air of entrapment is intensified by the set (well designed by Emily Dunn), a ground floor kitchen/dining/living area over which looms the absent child’s cheerful, haunting little bedroom. Much of the physical business of the play conveys sad domestic routine – wiping counters, serving food – performed by people who can’t quite see the point anymore. In another departure for Lindsay-Abaire, there is only the one set; while he often sends his characters on journeys, or sets them into furious motion, here he aims for a horrible sense of constriction. The (rather obvious) problem is how to move forward. And no one agrees on how that is to be done.
Difficulties emerge in the work’s second half. There are in fact a couple of strong scenes. One in which Becca and Nat disassemble the child’s bedroom, bagging and boxing his things, is written and played with economy; it’s deeply affecting without lapsing into easy heart-tugging. The other involves the play’s lone outsider, Jason, the teenage driver who struck and killed Danny. His two appearances have a kind of galvanizing effect on Howie and Becca; while the former concentrates all his rage and resentment on the boy, the latter is almost mesmerized by his presence. Daniel Plimpton (the only non-Equity performer in the cast) clearly gets the character’s essential innocence and the way in which he brings with him a sense of the reality of the world outside this house. When he arrives, it is a relief for the audience, and for Becca. It is when she is alone with Jason, offering him lemon bars and milk and listening to him recount his night at the prom, that she can finally start to cry (a scene we have, of course, been expecting). Jason also provides the play’s title, in his science-fiction story of parallel worlds linked by “rabbit holes,” a story that offers Becca a glimpse of a cosmological order not shaped inevitably by loss. The family’s grief has shoved them down a rabbit hole of the Alice in Wonderland variety, where they find themselves trapped in a distorted version of their former lives. Jason’s naive tale suggests an alternate trajectory, an escape.
These scenes, however, don’t quite build to a conclusion. Lindsay-Abaire is clearly trying to avoid a simplistic depiction of the stages of grief and to eschew cheap emotionalism. But he can’t quite resist the inevitable drift towards reconciliation and redemption built into such stories (particularly on the American stage). The author is not quite sure what to do with Nat and Izzy in the end, so we get attempts at parallel structures that suggest a reemerging family closeness: the story of Izzy’s fisticuffs in a bar is mirrored by an account of Becca smacking a woman in a supermarket; Becca’s furious rejection of her mother’s comparison, in the first act, of Danny’s death with that of her own grown, drug-addicted son is inverted in the later scene in Danny’s bedroom. Here Becca pointedly asks her mother about her own experience of grief. To give Lindsay-Abaire his due, the mother’s answer is not an especially sunny one: mourning may fade, but “it never goes away.” The concluding scene, with Becca and Howie alone at the family dinner table, is an illustration of a stage of grief rather than an ending, notable more for what it is not than what it is. We move toward a tentative, lights-down handclasp rather than a full embrace or group hug.