Have you ever overheard or been part of one of those man-woman, husband-wife, boyfriend-girlfriend discussions where the situation is rife with potential for hours on end of argument, misunderstanding, verbal missteps and accidental inflictions of mortal wounds by thoughtless inflection, a sigh or a raised eyebrow?
“Rabbit Hole,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay Abaire, now getting an emotionally gripping performance by the Keegan Theatre, ratchets up the stakes by widening the battlefield to include not only a husband and wife, but a grandmother and sister, the barking of a beloved (by some) dog and a hesitant teenaged boy, all of them are dealing with the blowback of a gigantic grief after the loss of a four-year-old boy in an accident.
Death and loss is a staple of theater drama and tragedy, of course, and the death of a child only ups the ante, even if it is not unfamiliar stage fare. It ought to be cause for automatic tearing up, but Abaire, director Kerri Rambow and an outstanding cast don’t let the audience wallow but make it almost painful, no-exit observers of how people deal or don’t deal with an unfathomable tragedy. Abaire is a lyrical writer but not a sentimental one—he’s after a kind of geography of feeling which is mapped with empathy and love, sans judgement in the writing. The actors treat the material the same way—while the play abounds in opportunity and temptation to overact and pounce on emotions, they resist naturally, without any sweat or effort.
Talk all you want in funeral notice or celebratory tribute language about long illness, old age or how one will always be remembered. If there is great love—or even if not—or simply habit, no death prepares survivors for the absence and loss, the alterations in the lives remaining. There are thousands of things we do with parents, lovers, friends, partners, even pets, that simply disappear and instantly become the past with a last breath. With the death of a child, all these factors exist, with the added pain not only of the daily presence but the imagined future of a child now blasted from the horizon.
Becca and Howie have to navigate what was once the familiar landscape of home, living room, kitchen, bedrooms and the outside world revealed in conversation, like soldiers crawling through a minefield. All the familiar words we use in every day talk have become weighted, full of double and triple meanings, potentially incendiary, their surroundings glowing even in the dark with memories.
We first meet Becca in the kitchen of an expansive home—colorfully filling up the Keegan stage—folding clothes and putting them in a box, with the help of her excitable sister, the aptly named Izzy, who recounts a funny and tortured story about getting into a bar fight with the former girlfriend of her boyfriend. It is a funny story, to which Becca responds in brittle, sarcastic fashion, overly so, until you realize that the clothes she’s folding for charity are the lost boy’s clothing.
The “event” isn’t recent, but months ago. It still overshadows everything for Becca and husband Howie (played by real life husband and wife Susan Marie Rhea and Mark A. Rhea): how they move in the house, how much space is between them sitting and standing. In this context, Izzy is almost a reproachful example of life going on—she’s pregnant, she’s in life, and maybe love, a live wire by nature. Becca often stands like an obstacle, not quite rigid, but strong with unspent emotion and steely pragmatism. Her best friend hasn’t spoken to her since the child’s death, and Howie is trying to navigate the wrenching, roiling process of both keeping the boy alive in his memory while going back to a space before the awful accident. “I want to go back to the way we were,” he says, trying awkwardly, like a teenager on a first date, to get physical with Becca on the couch. In that scene, beautifully played by both Rheas, you can see for a brief moment, how they were at the start. The scene evaporates with Becca’s resistance, and it’s a poignant moment of loss for the audience.
Susan Marie Rhea plays the wife in such understated fashion, a woman barely maintaining control over not just herself but everybody else, that she seems almost chilly. She’s lost among other things the qualities that you see shadow-like, warm intelligence, a coy flintiness, deep passions. Mark’s character, Howie, is exactly the opposite. He’s lost his confidence and assurance of a place in the world he created. He slurs his words, he mumbles, he yells and he stumbles like a shadow-punching fighter. He’s meaty and needy.
The couple has reacted differently to what has happened. She’s trying to erase memory by boxing away photos—but keeping the kid’s room intact—books and anything that might spark a memory as well as putting up a for-sale sign on the house. Howie on the other hand wants a return. Shaking, he watches videos of him playing with the boy. He wants the dog—who helped cause the accident—back in the house, and he’s joined a support group.
Becca’s mom Nat is an irascible, powerhouse presence and present. She is a reminder of another loss, the suicide of Becca’s brother years ago, a memory that’s like a strong irritant on an open wound for both. But she’s also obsessively tart and funny—explaining her own theory of loss by way of the Kennedy family, for instance. Linda High plays her like a forceful mess.
Patrick Joy is almost awkwardly whimsical as the teenage boy, who, without real fault, caused the death of the child. Not so much as to make amends, he tries to provide a kind of cleansing and solace.
Solace, of course, is hard to come by in this play and on this stage. The process of grieving is a kind of grind, full of explosions, a dangerous process. The audience—in a case like this—is stuck in the same place as the character, wishing and hoping for them without knowing the end of the story. Abaire has the good sense to resist a placebo ending. All along, he’s resisted manipulating either the characters or the audience.