Theatre Review: NNPN – “Rabbit Hole” in Denver at the Curious

“Through the Rabbit Hole” - photo by Eric Chan

Reviews of the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the Indianapolis Civic Theatre’s production of “Enchanted April” are in the pipe, but first I would like to expand the scope of my blog a teeny bit and start a new category: National New Play Network reviews.

The inaugural review (see below) will be of the Curious Theatre Company’s presentation of “Rabbit Hole,” by David Lindsay-Abaire, in Denver, Colorado on Saturday, January 24, 2009.   I loved both the script and the Curious’ very professional production of it.  As my friend, Connie, says, it was a profound experience.

BACKGROUND:

Connie and I were in Denver, Colorado, for the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting.  We are both on book award committees so we go to two ALA sessions per year and we usually room together. 

In the summer of 2007, when ALA’s Annual Conference was in Washington, DC, we went to see “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” by Sarah Ruhl, at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.  That was pre-blog and I did not know anything about the National New Play Network then.  I read about the Woolly in Connie’s travel guidebook and it just sounded like my kind of theatre: professional quality and adventurous content.  Connie and I both needed a break from our meetings, so we went to the Woolly on a whim.  We had a wonderful time!

Then in the summer of 2008, the National New Play Network held its annual conference here in Indianapolis at the Phoenix Theatre.  I had my theatre blog up and running by then.  I felt privileged to be able to sit in on the NNPN conference and write about it.  I decided that I would try to see a show at every theatre in the Network over time.

ALA’s Midwinter meeting in 2008 was held in Philadelphia. I groaned with disappointment when I realized that the InterAct Theatre’s rolling world premiere of “Black Gold” would not open until the week after Connie and I were there.

ALA’s 2008 Annual Conference was held in Anaheim.  I don’t think there is a NNPN member in Anaheim.  In any case, we crossed off an item on a different life list there.

For the 2009 Midwinter Meeting we were in Denver and – yes! – the Curious Theatre was on its second of five weekends of “Rabbit Hole,” by David Lindsay-Abaire.   

This play won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, so the Curious’ production was “only” a regional premiere, not a world premiere.  In other words, it was not a play that would fulfill the NNPN membership requirements, but I didn’t care.  I just wanted to see a show at the Curious.

The fact that our own Indiana Repertory Theatre will also present “Rabbit Hole” later this season was icing.

REVIEW OF “RABBIT HOLE”:

Christy Montour-Larson directed the Curious production, assisted by Kate Roselle.  I loved the realistic complexity of the characters, the nuances, in this show.

The story is of a couple whose very young child was killed when he ran into the street after a ball.  The driver of the car was a teenager.  The play is an exploration of the whole family’s grieving process, which is different for each person.  The actors convey many layers of emotion: sadness, of course, and rage, but also humor, regret, numbness, love, loyalty, and more.

As artistic producing director Chip Walton said during the Talk Back session after the show, “Loss exists on many planes.”

Rachel Fowler plays Becca, the tightly-wound mother of Danny, the boy who died by accident.  She reminded me a little of the mother played by Mary Tyler Moore in the movie version of “Ordinary People,” but I agree with Connie that Becca is not as cold.   “She is visibly suffering,” Connie said.   Fowler – and the playwright – makes Becca human.

When the play opens, we learn that Becca’s wild younger sister, Izzy, is expecting a baby with a man whose ex-girlfriend Izzy punched in a bar.  Izzy is funny and sometimes pitiable, but Jessica Robblee also lets us see Izzy’s fearlessness.  In the Talk Back session after the show, Robblee said that Izzy is the “truth teller” in the family.  I agree.

Becca and Izzy’s obnoxious mother, Nat, is played by Kathryn Gray.  Nat pushed some of my own “mommy buttons” at first and made me want to smack her, but my heart went out to her when I learned that she, too, has lost a son, through suicide.   When she tries to comfort Becca by comparing their losses, Becca blows up at her: the two losses are not the same!  I could relate to that, but I also felt sympathy when Nat says “I don’t know your rules.  I don’t want to be scolded.”

The play made me think a lot about comfort giving.  Becca and Nat talk about the reactions of their friends.  Becca’s friend Donna suddenly stopped calling after Danny died.  Nat’s friend, Maureen, made comforting Nat into a hobby after Arthur died.  Neither friend was actually a comfort.

Becca’s husband, Howie (played by Erik Sandvold), wants to be a comfort to his wife, but his process of grieving is different from hers.  Sandvold, too, shows us the complexity of his character in a heartbreaking, yet satisfying, way.

Three mothers, a husband/father…the last character to appear is Jason, the teenaged boy who was driving the car.  Sean Mellott conveys Jason’s confusion and remorse – and his youth – perfectly.

The multi-level set, designed by Michael R. Duran and lit by Jacob Welch, is exquisitely detailed.  It is an “open floor plan” suburban home with delicate, light blue paint on the walls and a child’s drawings on the fridge.  A toy-filled child’s bedroom is upstairs.  The lighting design not only physically illuminates the characters but illuminates – through shadows – their faults as well.

The pre-show music is somber but also sort of cheerful and plinky as if from a music box.  In the Talk Back session I learned that the sound designer, Brian Freeland, has a four-year-old son.  He recorded his son randomly hitting the keys on their piano at home and incorporated it via computer into an original composition for this show.  The music does an excellent job of establishing the thoughtful mood of the piece.

Cari Varner designed the props and oh, my goodness, the characters consume a lot of them!  Birthday cakes are cut, bottles of wine are emptied, presents are unwrapped, the dishwasher fills with dirty dishes, the trash bag under the kitchen sink fills with trash… There is a lot to replace for each performance, but everything looks just right.  It really seems as if this family is living in this house.

Ann Louise Piano’s costume design gives an apt visual for each character’s personality, too.  I especially loved Izzy’s free-flowing skirts.  Piano was assisted by Sarah Holden.

Diane Whitcomb is the stage manager.  She is assisted by Brad Davis.  Eryn Ohnick is the sound board operator.  Guy Wright is the technical director.

During the Talk Back session after the show, producing artistic director Chip Walton said this is a departure for the playwright.  Lindsay-Abaire had been best known for his comedy writing.  He wrote the book for “Shrek the Musical,” for example.   With “Rabbit Hole” he wanted to prove to everyone that he could write a straight play.

An audience member asked what kind of research the actors did to prepare for this show.  Rachel Fowler said that they had had a speaker from the Compassionate Friends support group.  That speaker referred them to a novel called Knitting Circle, by Ann Hood, as another authentic representation of the complexities of grief.

Another audience member asked if the actors thought the characters were healthy or unhealthy in their grief.   I didn’t say anything in the theatre, but I thought that he was being judgmental and had missed the point of the play, which is that everyone’s grief process is different but valid.    Each of the characters behaves in “healthy” and “unhealthy” ways from time to time, just as all of us do. 

Connie and I talked some more about this in the taxi ride back to our hotel.  It’s not as if the play has a happy ending, but it is NOT a downer, either.  Becca and Howie do come to a different place as a couple over the months covered in the play.  The play itself has the potential to have a healing effect on its audience, without offering any pat, saccharine “answers.”

In the Talk Back session, another audience member said, “I am a hospital chaplain and I have been wondering what it is doing to you all to live with these roles.  Are you actors getting the emotional support you need?”

Fowler (Becca) said that she leaves a performance of this play feeling tired but grateful for her own child.  She has a 16-month-old at home.  Her fatigue from the show is more physical than emotional.

Sandvold (Howie) said that he feels tired and sad after the play ends each night.  He hadn’t thought about it until the audience member asked the question, but he has been quieter and kept more to himself during this show. 

Walton said that actors try to have the practice of leaving the work at the door, but it is not always possible. 

Mellott (Jason) said he finds it harder to be in plays with completely happy endings.  (By the way, the program says that he played Nelson in the Curious’ rolling world premiere of “End Days,” by Deborah Zoe Laufer.  I loved that play when it shared the rolling world premiere here at the Phoenix.  I bet I would have loved the Curious’ production of it, too!)

Robblee (Izzy) said that she feels energized by the show.  That makes sense to me, too.  Telling truth, although scary, is energizing.

THE CURIOUS THEATRE:

If I lived in Denver, I would be a Curious season subscriber.  I was impressed by the artistry of this particular show, but I also loved the feel of the performance space and I love the philosophy of the company.

The Curious is in a renovated church. Their website says it was built in 1880.  In some ways it still feels like a church.  The ceiling and the outlines of what used to be stained glass windows are arched, like a cathedral’s.  The large front door is solid wood.  Whenever I enter any theatre I feel as if I am entering a sacred space, but I felt it especially strongly when I entered the Curious.

In other ways it feels like an old-timey movie house, which is another kind of magical space.  The seats have that shape, and they are covered in velvet.

There is a little drinks lounge upstairs called “The Sanctuary.”  Connie and I sat in the balcony and had a just-right view of the stage. The stage is spacious, but the house feels intimate.

Chip Walton said that there is a Talk Back after every show at the Curious because they want to engage with their audiences.  He said, “Audiences have been especially responsive to this show (‘Rabbit Hole’) and they do want to stay and talk about it.  But we always like to do shows that make you think and discuss as well as entertain you.”

The Curious, like the Woolly in Washington, DC and the Phoenix here in Indianapolis, is my kind of theatre.  I am looking forward to visiting all of the member theatres in the National New Play Network.

Hope Baugh – http://www.indytheatrehabit.com/

PS – If you happen to be in Denver soon, “Rabbit Hole” continues at the Curious Theatre through Saturday, February 14, 2009.  For more information or to make a reservation, please call the box office at 303-623-0534.

The Indiana Repertory Theatre’s production of “Rabbit Hole” will run from April 21-May 10, 2009.  For more information or to make a reservation, please call the ticket office at 317-635-5252.

3 thoughts on “Theatre Review: NNPN – “Rabbit Hole” in Denver at the Curious”

  1. You said 21 Apr-5 May for IRT’s production. I had 21 April-17 May on my calendar, so I pulled out the IRT pocket calendar, and it says 21 Apr – 10 May. So what’s right?

  2. I thought I had taken my dates from the IRT’s website, but when I looked there again just now, it says through May 10, so I have revised my blog post accordingly.

    Thanks for reading, Joe!

  3. Hey, Hope, thanks for your support of the NNPN. There is not an Anaheim representative, but there IS a Los Angeles rep: Fountain Theatre. Don’t worry — they were too far away from your conference to get to on that visit. http://www.nnpn.org lists all of the NNPN theatres, for your readers who travel and would care to seek out a professional, contemporary, producing theatre with a social mission!

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