Theatre Review: “Rabbit Hole” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre

LtR - Priscilla Lindsay, Gwendolyn Whiteside, and Lauren Lovett in Rabbit Hole at the IRT

You already know that one of my all-time favorite playwrights is James Still, the playwright-in-residence at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.  On Friday, April 24, 2009, I drove to downtown Indianapolis to see the opening night of a play that he directed for the IRT: “Rabbit Hole,” by David Lindsay-Abaire.

Now James is one of my all-time favorite directors, too.   I am not always sure what a director does, but I think James is ultimately responsible for the wealth of meaning that the five actors bring forth between the spoken lines of this powerful family story for adults.  I think he is also ultimately responsible for their definitely hopeful interpretation of Lindsay-Abaire’s ending.

You go through a lot with the characters, but you leave the theatre feeling refreshed and able to tackle whatever’s on your plate.

I invited actress Phyllis Munro to be my guest because when she read about my experience of seeing this show produced by the Curious Theatre in Denver, she told me that a) she had loved the script when she read it herself, and b) she hopes to one day act in this piece when one of our local community theatre companies stages it.  I believed her when she told me she was delighted to get the chance to see it produced by the IRT, a professional company.

But Phyllis never showed up.  I learned later that a fire had broken out at the warehouse of the company that she and her husband own.  No one was hurt, thank goodness, and the damage was much less than it could have been if the firefighters hadn’t responded as quickly as they did.

Still, I couldn’t help thinking of something that dramaturg Richard Roberts alluded to in his Prologue talk before the show: “Rabbit Hole” is about how the rest of the family responds to the accidental death of a child – and perhaps nothing is more unexpected and devastating than that – but there are all kinds of losses in life.  Loss of a business, loss of a home, loss of a limb, loss of a marriage through divorce…these are all traumatic experiences that require a person to grieve in his or her own way before moving on.

This show artistically explores and validates the complexity and uniqueness of each person’s grieving process and pace.  It’s not good to force the process, either by rushing it or lengthening it.

The show also offers an opportunity for catharsis if you happen to have experienced a loss in your own life.

And who hasn’t?

It offers the opportunity to cry – I heard lots of sniffling at the end of the show – but it also offers the opportunity to laugh.  Roberts said that people who are grieving sometimes feel guilty about laughing, as if it means that they are forgetting the person they lost.  However, a good laugh, like a good cry, can be physically healing as well as enjoyable.  It improves one’s health and fights disease.  It does NOT mean that the survivors have forgotten the loved one.

In “Rabbit Hole,” we gradually learn that when four-year-old Danny died, there were five survivors: his mother, his father, his grandmother, his aunt, and the teenaged driver who hit him by mistake when Danny ran into the street after a ball.

Now it is several months later.  Everyone is still figuring out how to keep going.

Danny’s mother, Becca (Lauren Lovett), attempts to cope by controlling her environment and herself as much as possible.  Her younger sister, Izzy (Gwendolyn Whiteside), on the other hand, does not hold back any of her feelings, even if they lead her into punching another woman at a bar.  Their mother, Nat (Priscilla Lindsay), drinks a little too much.  Danny’s father, Howie (Ryan Artzberger), goes to a support group for grieving parents.  The teenager, Jason (Drew Paramore), writes science fiction stories about alternate realities and clumsily tries to express how sorry he is.

The portrayals and relationships are all beautifully nuanced.  Izzy and Nat are especially hilarious, but each of the five made me laugh at one time or another.  Howie is definitely a hottie, but each of the characters is appealing in his or her own way.   My heart went out to Jason…but really it went out to all of them.  And as I said earlier, one of the delights of this production is the abundance of meaning that is conveyed by each of the actors around, under, and in between their lines.

Another satisfaction, I think, is that everyone in the audience relates to the five characters a little differently.  After the show I stayed for the opening night reception in the lobby and chatted a bit with two other audience members, Alison and Alicia.

Alicia and I said that that we liked how funny the show was.

Alison agreed, saying, “Lightness tempered it.  I didn’t always laugh right away because I was still in the previous (sad) moment, but the lightness tempered it overall.”

“So do you think he (Howie) actually had an affair?” Alicia asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “But I was really attracted to him, and I felt sorry for him when Becca rebuffed his advances.  I mean, I felt sorry for her, too, and I respect her right to not have sex if she doesn’t want to…”

“But eight months is a long time to go without!”

Exactly.  Especially if you’re grieving.

Our conversation moved to talking about men in general, and Alicia recommended Steve Harvey’s book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.  But I digress.

After Alison and Alicia left, I chatted a bit with another audience member named Frank.  He said that he and his wife see every IRT show.  “Ninety percent of the time,” he said, “I’m happy.”

He came to this show not having any idea what it was about.  They found their seats, started to read their programs, and he thought, “A child’s death?  Uh-oh.”  But he enjoyed this show, too.

There was a long pause at the end of the show, before the applause began, but then people stood immediately to clap.  On my way out to the reception, I overheard another audience member say to her companion, through tears, “Oh, everyone needs to see this!”

I would never say that about any show because I think that theatre-going is as personal as recreational reading, and everyone just needs to see every show they can, but I do agree with what the IRT’s artistic director, Janet Allen, said in her program notes:  this is “the kind of play that won’t tour but absolutely deserves to be seen and discussed in regional theatre productions across the nation.”

Other treats in the IRT’s production include the design elements:

The set, designed by Kate Sutton-Johnson, is of an open-plan suburban home, but with clever touches that make it more artful, a touch more dreamlike, than just a beautifully built home, although it is that, too.  For example, there are books under every padded bench, letting you know that this is a family that reads, without bogging down the airiness of the set with tall, heavy bookshelves.  Another example is that the upstairs door and window follow the slant of the imaginary roof in a way that they probably wouldn’t in real life.  They give you a sense of the roof, but again, without bogging down the set as a whole.  The set is substantial, but not completely solid, if that makes sense, sort of like the characters, who have become ungrounded and fragmented by their grief.

Danny’s room is the only room you see on the second floor.  It is always there, always a symbol of him, hanging over them.  Whenever the actors were up there during the show, I held my breath: there didn’t seem to be much room for them to move around the bed, and there were no partial walls or anything to keep them from falling off the edges!  If it had been me, I would have been a nervous wreck.  However, they all acted perfectly relaxed, as if there really were walls around them.

The music for the show was composed by Michael Keck.  I loved the liquidity (is that a word?) of it.  It was emotional and active but soothing, too, like dolphins.

Tracy Dorman, the costume designer, gave us a lot of information about the characters through what they wore.  Becca wore chinos in the first act – neat and preppy – while Howie wore jeans and a comfortable chambray shirt.  However, in the second act, he wore his business suit and she wore more relaxed clothes, echoing the shifts in their emotional states.  They are both pretty clean-cut and tasteful, though, no matter what.

Izzy and Nat, on the other hand, are both so funny (and I say that with affection) that their clothes have to be, too:  Izzy wears high-heeled cowboy boots, bright blue eye shadow, and other wild, take-no-prisoners clothes.  Nat wears fearlessly flowered polyester and glasses on top of her head.  I covet her “when I’m old I will wear purple” patterned walking shoes.

Lighting designer Michael Lincoln’s program notes say that “This is an intimate play and fortunately for the audience, produced by the IRT in an intimate space.  Lighting for ‘Rabbit Hole’ should be delicate, subtle, and mostly unnoticed.”  But it’s my job to notice the lighting…and in this show it is lovely.  It includes moonlight, and small lamps, and shadows…yes, all right, it IS subtle.  Subtle and lovely.

Tarin Hurstell is the stage manager. I don’t know if she is responsible for the dog barking “in the back yard,” but it sounded very real!

And finally, there is Lindsay-Abaire’s script.  It won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  I received a copy of the script in my goody bag at last year’s IRT season launch breakfast for media people.  I love many, many of the lines in the script.  I’ll just share two:

Becca, about her impatience with the support group: “They don’t understand what I’m going through.  They understand what THEY are going through.”

Izzy, about giving birth and raising a child – “If my mother can do it, how hard can it be?”

Dramaturg Roberts told us that playwright Marsha Norman told David Lindsay-Abaire to “write about the thing you are most afraid of.”  For years, he didn’t know what that was.  Then he and his wife became parents, and he knew that his greatest fear was losing his child.

I am very glad that he had the courage to write about it and that the IRT chose to produce what he wrote.

“Rabbit Hole” continues at the Indiana Repertory Theatre through Sunday, May 10, 2009.  To make a reservation, please call the ticket office at 317-635-5252.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

6 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “Rabbit Hole” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre”

  1. Your review makes me rethink my reluctance to audition for this show. Phyllis likes the heavy stuff; I usually don’t. But it sounds provocative……

  2. The grandmother, Nat, is a very juicy part. Actually, they all are. Break a leg if you do audition, Susan! I can’t remember: is it Spotlight that is going to premiere this for community theatre around here?

  3. I’m trying to decide if I want to see this. Justin Ivan Brown gave me the script late last year thinking that I’d be interested in the role of Izzy if I ever got the chance to do it. And I am interested, but maybe only as an actor. Funny how there are parts I’d love to perform but not see performed. Thanks for reviewing, Hope! I’ll have to mull it over.

  4. You’re welcome, Erin. Hah! I can totally see you as Izzy.

    I think you would really enjoy the IRT’s production of this show. However, I can also understand that it might be weird to see someone else’s interpretation of a role that you are hoping to inhabit yourself.

    I remember when I was stage managing “The House of Blue Leaves” at the Phoenix decades ago and one day one of the nuns called in sick. Called in sick! Don’t get me started about how much I did NOT believe she was too sick to go on!

    Anyway, that meant I was that nun that day. Eeep!

    We had a quick rehearsal, and Bryan (the director) told me he knew I didn’t have much time in which to work, but that it would be better if I did not try to play the regular actress playing the part, but to find my own way of playing it.

    That was both harder and easier than it sounded. I doubt I was very successful, especially since on top of everything else, my habit kept coming undone during the show, but I have always remembered Bryan’s direction that afternoon. It has come in handy in a lot of other situations as well.

    I can see how it would be hard not to let another actor’s exploration of a role get in the way of your own. On the other hand, you’re a pretty strong personality yourself, Erin. (And I mean that as a compliment!) I bet you could see this production and still find your own way to be Izzy when the time came.

    Break a leg, whatever you decide. And thanks for reading.

  5. Hope – it was so nice to see you at the theatre that night, and I wholly agree with your review. Having lost 4 family members in 4 weeks during 2008, my husband and I could fully understand, appreciate, and reflect on what the actor’s said; and didn’t say.
    It was an excellent production – and I loved the little bits and unsaid things.
    Come see Shakespeare in the Park in Greenwood if you can. I will be playing the First Witch in Macbeth and we’re looking forward to another fun and educating year (many of our castmates are local students from the area who will be working all summer with us – basically from NOW to mid-August – learning the ropes of doing outdoor theatre.
    All the best – Ashley J.

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