There is a moment in the second act of David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole, now playing at Beowulf Alley, when the characters, and the play itself, let go of their tension for a first tentative moment.
It's almost magical, because suddenly, in the audience, you can feel yourself begin to breathe freely again. It's like the beginning of healing.
Healing is elusive in Lindsay-Abaire's harrowing tale, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2007. The play centers on Becca and Howie, a couple living in a comfortable suburban home outside of New York whose world was turned upside down when their 4-year-old son was struck and killed by a teenage driver.
The accident happened some months before the beginning of the play, and the grieving parents must now figure out how to get on with their lives; they cope in separate ways.
Played by Nell Summers, Becca is an emotional porcupine, with raw, exposed nerves. (Cynthia Nixon won a Tony for her performance of Becca on the New York stage.) Brush her the wrong way (and it's hard not to), and the barbs come out. Any human closeness seems to open the wounds of her grief.
Gabriel Nagy, as Howie, comes across at first as the more emotionally balanced of the two. He is attending a support group, and he's able to carry on a conversation without it always being about his son beneath the surface. But he also compulsively watches home videos of his son after his wife is asleep, and he may or may not be seeking the intimacy he is not finding at home elsewhere. As Becca observes, Howie is not really in a better place than she is—just a different one.
Nagy paints Howie as a man who may be hurting deeply, but who doesn't spend much time in self-examination. His broad gestures and booming voice are less telling of his inner life than his overreactions to minor events, such as learning that his mother-in-law is overfeeding the family dog.
The weakest moment in an otherwise confident performance comes when Howie's defenses are broken down, revealing the train-wreck inside. Nagy doesn't handle this scene with the vulnerability needed to really open Howie's heart to the audience, but the moment passes quickly.
As Becca, Summers has the difficult task of winning empathy for a character who is not pleasant; she is only partly successful. She would have been better served had director Sara Falconer directed the proceedings with a lighter touch, allowing her character to toss out handfuls of razor blades rather than engaging in a perpetual knife fight. The problem is not that Summers isn't up to the task—her pain feels very real—but it's exhausting to watch as each trigger tears her open.
Her performance turns brilliant, however, in the second act, after the unexpected appearance of Jason, the teenage driver in the fatal accident. Played by Ian Mortensen with an endearingly loose-limbed, eager-to-please earnestness, Jason is looking for redemption as well. Or perhaps he's seeking condemnation—just some way to ease his own feelings of guilt, something to bring closure.
Unexpectedly, it is Howie who flies off the handle when Jason shows up, while Becca is open to hearing what he has to say. This marks the beginning of her healing, and Summers' transformation is understated but remarkable.
As cathartic as this whole journey is, the evening is more than just an emotional marathon due in large part to the supporting characters. Izzy is Becca's bohemian younger sister. She is exuberant, unafraid to say what she thinks and pregnant by her musician boyfriend. Nat is the mother of the two sisters, though she seems more related to Izzy than Becca. Always quick with a story or an opinion, Nat also carries within her the tragic loss of a child—a drug-addicted son who committed suicide 15 years before.
Becca and Howie are the heart of the drama, but Izzy and Nat keep it alive. Played with brio by Kristina Sloan and Martie van der Voort, they bring welcome laughs, cross boundaries and ask questions that more sensitive people might avoid. They inject life into a play about coping with death, and with Becca in the middle, they create a virtual timeline, from birth, to loss, to acceptance.
Dave Sewell's suburban-home set is almost a character unto itself. It marks the limits of Becca's world for most of the play, serving as both a shelter and a prison. It is tastefully furnished, but neat to the point of looking unlived-in. Behind the living room, where an angry painting hangs on the wall, lies the isolated, claustrophobic room of the family's lost child.
There is much pain in this play, but it is not a tragedy: Rabbit Hole is about what comes after a tragedy, and in the end, what lies through the rabbit hole is the strength to move forward, one step at a time.