Saturday, April 05, 2008

Review - Rabbit Hole - Jungle Theater - 5 stars

“That’s a nice thought. That somewhere out there, there’s a me that’s happy.”

It’s not often a production can make me forget I’m sitting in a theater. But in the second act of “Rabbit Hole,” when a character unexpectedly walked in who had caused a great deal of pain to all the other characters onstage, I let out an all-too-audible “Oh, crap” in an otherwise suddenly hushed house.

Rabbit Hole” is in many ways an extremely simple play. But that is its secret. Because, for all its simplicity, and probably because of it, “Rabbit Hole” is also a very powerful play. Very real, very human, very funny, and very powerful.

This is in large measure due to its script, the 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama, written by David Lindsay-Abaire. It is in equal measure due to a great cast and overall creative team. The Jungle Theater’s production is pitch perfect.

Rabbit Hole” is a story of five people trying to rebuild and move on with their lives in the aftermath of the accidental death of a five-year-old boy named Danny.

The grief is not fresh - at the start of the play, the accident is many months past. But the grief is still debilitating. Danny’s parents, Becca and Howie (the fantastic pairing of Amy McDonald and Lee Mark Nelson), are back to something like their regular routines, but not quite. Becca’s sister Izzy (the brash and funny Maggie Chestovich) and mother Nat (the wonderfully loopy Nancy Marvy) are trying in their own awkward ways to help and play along like things are back to normal. But Jason, the young man behind the wheel of the car when Danny chased the family dog into the street, is repeatedly reaching out to contact them. Jason (a shy but determined Jason Peterson) turns out to not only be central to all their pain, but also to their healing.

Director and set designer Bain Boehlke has gotten a quintet of fine performances from the actors, and given them a great environment in which to live. Becca and Howie’s home is all earth tones and clean surfaces. There are only two exceptions to this borderline sterile atmosphere. One is the now unoccupied bedroom at the back of the stage that used to be Danny’s - all bright colors, posters and toys. Above the bed, there is an enormous circular hole in the ceiling - a very nice touch, and one that looms as large over the proceedings as the boy’s absence. The other burst of clutter is a collection of videotapes by the VCR at the front of the stage - tapes that are some of the last remnants of Danny’s face and voice. Everywhere else, the family photos have been removed. The dog has been sent off to live with Nat. Danny’s drawings have been taken from the refrigerator and packed away in boxes. The details of this lived-in, and not lived-in, house are revealed in moments both comic and heartbreaking throughout the course of the night.

It’s that mix - the silly with the sad - which makes the story work. Otherwise, it would be too much to bear. Blackouts between each scene - things which normally drive me crazy as killers of a story’s momentum - are actually critical here. The scenes are so full of feeling and humanity, the audience needs a chance to breathe, and these tiny bits of focused darkness provide them. The gentlest of music and swift scene changes keep the flow going. “Rabbit Hole” is a story that breathes, ebbs and flows, but never seems to wander. It is always headed steadily toward those final moments of humor and grace - even if the audience at times isn’t sure Becca and Howie will ever get there - or what it will look like when they do. It isn’t a simple “Hollywood” happy ending, but we wouldn’t believe it if it were. It’s a real, and hopeful, ending - all the more uplifting for being so hard won.

Shifts are occurring in everyone’s lives which drive them forward in spite of their loss. Becca insists she and Howie sell their house to try and escape the memories of their son. Howie in his loneliness demands the dog be returned. Izzy, the irresponsible younger sister, is pregnant. Nat keeps trying to draw parallels between the death of her grandson Danny, and her own son, Auggie, Becca and Izzy’s brother. Becca resists the connection because Auggie died in adulthood, not in childhood, and under very different circumstances. Becca’s resistance to Nat’s attempts to comfort her causes moments both amusing and uncomfortable, and ultimately even tender. Two very different mothers come to a shared understanding about what it means to lose a child, even as another child is poised to come into their extended family. Meanwhile, Jason, the unfortunate driver of the car which hit Danny, is on the verge of graduating high school. He wants to find a way to make piece with Danny’s parents, something to which Becca and Howie have very different reactions.

Jason’s first attempt to reach out comes in the form of a science fiction story he wrote for his high school literary magazine. It is a story he wants to dedicate to Danny. The tale centers around a son searching for a lost father through holes in time and space - rabbit holes - leading to parallel universes, where different versions of the same people lead alternate lives with different outcomes. That “oh, crap” moment I mentioned at the beginning is Jason’s next attempt - the first time all five characters share the stage together, meeting for the first time since the accident. The final attempt at reconciliation comes when Becca agrees to meet with Jason - a meeting Howie wants no part of. This meeting allows Becca to have a conversation she will never be able to have with her own son - a conversation that is by turns awkward and sad, but also, finally, sweet.

Lee Mark Nelson and Amy McDonald are polar opposites in grief as Howie and Becca. Nelson’s Howie is a man whose emotions threaten to overwhelm him - a man who feels he is losing his wife as well as his son. McDonald as Becca at first might seen distant or detached to some audience members, but it is taking all her strength to keep her emotions in check, just to get through each day. The two share the same house and the same loss, but struggle throughout the play to reestablish the bond between them.

Maggie Chestovich as Izzy has a hard time living down her character’s wild past, but pregnancy seems to ground her, even if it doesn’t entirely change her. She can often see more clearly than her more conventional sister and brother-in-law.

Nancy Marvy is delightful as Nat, a woman who never seems to have gotten the hang of motherhood - as her three grown children bear witness (two alive, one dead). Though she’s often wildly inappropriate, and you often want to shake some sense into her, she never stops trying to do the right thing - even if most of the time it eludes her.

Jason Peterson in reality is well past his high school years, but his youthful looks and squirrelly body language as the character also named Jason fully embody a boy on the way to becoming a man. Life and circumstances have thrown Jason a major curveball on that journey, but he struggles, just like the rest, to do what is right in an impossible situation.

Everyone’s work behind the scenes is also just right - Amelia Cheever’s costumes, Barry Browning’s lights, Sean Healey’s sound, and John Novak’s props. Jessica D. Finney’s stage management keeps the whole thing running smoothly.

With a script, performances and support this good, it’s easy to get lost down this “Rabbit Hole.” And it’s a journey well worth taking. It reaffirms the value of life, love and family (however peculiar) in the face of death.

Very Highly Recommended.

Rabbit Hole” continues its run at the Jungle Theater through May 11, 2008 - Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm and 7:30pm. Tickets range in price from $26 to $36, depending on the night, with discounts for seniors, students and groups of six or more. For reservations, call the box office at 612-822-7063, or online at Half price rush tickets are available a half and hour prior to performance. The Jungle is located near the intersection of Lake Street and Lyndale Avenue (2951 Lyndale Avenue South in Minneapolis).

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