Howling Unspeakables

When David Lindsay-Abaire's The Rabbit Hole opened on Broadway last winter, New York Times critic Ben Brantley advised would-be theatergoers to bring life jackets. He was concerned that the play might cause a weeping so uncontrollable as to constitute a drowning hazard. Brantley seemed pleased about this, as though he could imagine nothing so wonderful as an evening spent in abject misery.

That's about as bizarre a look into the guts of human nature as you'll find on any stage, and if you're the sort of person who might go see Rabbit Hole, you'll probably want to mull it over before buying a ticket. In the main, misery is not fun — I'm actually pretty sure it's the opposite — and before you spend 20 or 30 bucks on the stuff, you should ask why you're doing it.

Because Rabbit Hole exacts a toll on its audience, and it's only American to want something in return. I'm quite convinced that that something exists, but it's more elusive than in most of Lindsay-Abaire's previous work. In days gone by, the playwright concerned himself with characters and situations that were safely removed from the workaday lives of the bulk of his audience — his plays were populated with aphasiacs, psychogenic amnesiacs, and prematurely aging progerians trying to make some sense of their lives in the face of whatever manic absurdities Lindsay-Abaire chucked at them. The plays were quirky and their tragedies improbable, allowing audiences to extricate themselves from the equation whenever the going got tough. These people are not me, one could say, even when they were.

Rabbit Hole collapses all such distance. It's the story of a family struggling to deal with the death of a 4-year-old son, Danny, who was killed by a teenaged driver eight months previously. It's a setup that could easily devolve into heavy-handed melodrama but never does. Previous absurdist tendencies aside, Lindsay-Abaire has a flair for naturalist language and a great capacity for restraint. As bereaved parents Becca and Howie (Wendy Michaels and Ken Clement) move through the rooms of their home, trying to figure out what to do with themselves, their story is told more through silence and the icy emptiness of forced pleasantry than it is through operatic detonations of grief.

As that story is told, a sense of place and history is constructed almost imperceptibly. Becca's pregnant party-girl sister, Izzy (Autumn Horne), is trying to settle down and make something of herself after a lifetime of irresponsibility. No particular references are made to the past worry she must have caused her family, nor to the heartache she's undoubtedly left in her wake. Rather, all of that can be read in Becca's eyes every time Izzy mouths another in what must be a very long chain of promises of reform and newfound maturity. Later in the play, one gets the feeling that Izzy really has reformed, maybe for her baby, maybe for her grieving sister. This too is only implied. We don't know if she's bought a car or opened a checking account or learned to cook, but people are suddenly listening to her, and she seems to command a new, unspoken respect.

The same sort of implied history is built up around Becca's relationship with her mother, Nat (Marjorie O'Neill-Butler). In Nat's nervous, fumbling efforts to find a language that will speak to her daughter's grief, one can read long years of good intentions and misunderstandings and whole, parallel lives lived in mystified isolation.

A script so reliant upon nonverbal communication will go limp in the hands of actors who cannot coax great meaning from small gestures. They've got to be subtle, and in terms of subtlety, these actors are supremely well-endowed. In the cases of Wendy Michaels and Ben Michaels, they may be endowed to excess. Ben, who portrays the young driver responsible for ending Danny's life, plays his brief appearances with a restraint so absolute that, in the real world, it would communicate not insincerity so much as mild autism (which is perfectly all right — many young drivers are, in fact, mildly autistic). Wendy's Becca is seamlessly convincing in almost every area, save that she never once finds catharsis. She's a virtuoso of sadness, anger, bitter humor, and nervousness, but in the rare moments when a bit of raw, naked grief would do the most good, she holds back.

Due in part to these two actors' under-playing, the play never erupts into the histrionics that would push things over the line into unchecked sobfest territory. There are very few moments when the heartbreak that informs the action comes bursting into the open. Instead, the actors nudge up to it, so close that you can see it from all angles, can examine the script's core of grief from every vantage point. And when, in the end, it is suggested that some form of healing may be possible, the subject matter has been sufficiently probed that everyone can understand, in both heart and head, exactly what that healing is worth.

Of course, losing a four-year-old in some sudden accident isn't an experience that can be reasonably explained. Those few moments when the ice does crack and the characters' howling despair comes erupting from the prevailing stillness are what give the rest of the play's reasoned, mannered performances their authority. When Ken Clement discovers that his wife has accidentally taped over one of his home movies of his son, he disintegrates before our eyes, giving momentary voice to a tragedy so final that it is, ultimately, unspeakable. When he cries "You're erasing him!" you realize this is how he must have looked when he found Danny dead in the street.

Although much of it is difficult to see, Rabbit Hole is not an exclusively sad play. There is a glowing kernel of hope buried in there someplace and even some very deft humor. It's just that here, such comforts are purchased with the willingness to accept the unacceptable, and that makes the bittersweet hope proffered in Rabbit Hole extremely valuable. It's the hope that the immutable can be born, that the inexplicable can be understood, and that even the most circumscribed, private pains can, somehow, be held in common.

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Brandon K. Thorp