‘Rabbit Hole’ at Peter’s Alley Theatre Productions

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“Grief does not change you (…). It reveals you.” John Green’s words rang true but seemed like a huge understatement while watching David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play directed by Stevie Zimmerman and featuring Rebecca Ellis and Brendan Murray as grieving parents, Becca and Howie Corbett.

Brendan Murray and Rebecca Ellis. Photo by Nubbs Photography.
Brendan Murray and Rebecca Ellis. Photo by Nubbs Photography.

In Rabbit Hole the couple’s grief over losing their four year-old son Danny tears them up, turns them against each other, makes them scream, cry, and lose control, while they wallow in blame, guilt, and hopeless despair. The first scene showing practical, prim and proper Becca, and her spontaneous and carefree sister Izzy (Aly B. Ettman) talking, fools us into believing that humor will take the edge of the painful subject matter and spare us the emotional roller coaster. It does not, and without it, the deeply moving and heartbreaking story of mourning, coping and healing would be much more challenging to watch.

Shortly after the opening scene it becomes clear that high-strung Becca has not made much progress dealing with her loss, and that her husband Howie is at the end of his tether trying to comfort her while bottling up his own pain. To add to the tension Izzy makes a surprise announcement, while the girls’ outspoken mother Nat, played by Sarah Holt, infuriates Becca by interfering in the way she handles her grief. And then there is Jason (Robert Grimm), a sensitive teenager from the neighborhood who is also trying to cope with his guilt. The Corbetts’ responses to his desperate attempts to make contact are clear signs of how much progress, if any, the couple have made in adjusting to their loss. Will they survive the storm? Will Becca and Howie stay married and move on?

Watching the excellent production made me forget that I was sitting in the audience. Because of the great direction and acting, I felt more like a fly on the wall, privileged to be inside a home of a family in crisis united by grief, yet separated by their own internal struggles, and watching how they are coping with their loss.

Bob Chaves’ simple set consists of a kitchen, living room and Danny’s room -which elevated on a platform acts as a constant reminder of the family tragedy- emanates a different energy depending on the dialog and scene. At times it feels like a prison of bereft parents or a shrine to a lost child, and at times, it is just a home, a place to celebrate a family birthday, have some wine and a few laughs.

The impact of the production is such that there are moments I wish I was watching a movie. But this is life theatre, no physical barriers in place to stop the powerful emotions reaching out to the audience and engulfing them.

David Lindsay-Abaire always wanted to write a naturalistic play, but the idea for Rabbit Hole came to him when he himself was a parent to a young son. Acting on advice of his Juilliard mentor who once told him that if he wanted to write a good play he should write about what most frightens him, he decided to do just that, and bravely delved into a nightmare every parent dreads the most. The result is an outstanding, emotionally-charged play, deserving of an equally outstanding staging. Peter’s Alley Theatre Productions picked a winner and produced one, owing to their talented team of director, actors, producers,and designers, including Bob Chaves (Set Design), Aly. B. Ettman (Costumes), Peter Caress (Lights), and David G. Jung (Sound).

If you have not seen Rabbit Hole before, I urge you to see it now. And if you are easily affected by emotions, get ready for your eyes to get misty. Forgetting my tissues was a big mistake; especially during a scene in which Murray is at his best, impersonating Howie breaking down and revealing the true depth of his pain. It’s a scene and a play not to be missed!

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

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Rabbit Hole plays through October 19, 2014 at Theatre on the Run – 3700 South Four Mile Run Drive, in Arlington VA. For tickets, purchase them online.