Rabbit Hole, by David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by John Trainor. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Jonathan Slocum and Tamara Gardner; photo: Daniel Region
"You're not allowed to use him!"
Tamara Gardner, Hana Kenny, Lael Locke; photo: Daniel Region
The words spoken by a grieving mother are not to be taken lightly. In the case of Becca, the young mother in David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize winning play, "Rabbit Hole," they must be taken seriously but with a grain of high-end sea-salt. Becca cooks and Becca bakes. She masks her grief with cuisine and creme caramel. She cannot hide how she feels, however, from her husband Howie, her sister Izzy or even from her mother Nat. These three are tied at the proverbial hip and what one feels the others sense and their sensors are always working.
Believe it or not this play about grief and grieving is a comedy. It's not Neil Simon funny and it wouldn't be assisted by the songs from "Annie" or any other musical about hard times. This play uses a gentle comedy to help you get through the grief felt for a lost child, a son run-down in the street in front of his own house. This is not easy stuff to write or easy stuff to act. At the Ghent Playhouse in Ghent, New York, though, a very talented cast is giving this play exactly what it demands: talent and understanding tempered with camaraderie and overseen/directed with an open heart and a knack for timing.
Tamara Gardner plays Becca, mother to the lost, wife to the self-assured lost, sister to the loser and daughter to the let-loose. Gardner has a definite facility with naturalness and it serves her well in this role. As written Becca is the rock that stabilizes the wall it supports. She is not emotionally shallow or emotionally concealed but she is controlled and she is controlling. Gardner lets each of these facets of Becca's personality come through. Her performance throughout brings us as close to audience eaves-dropping as possible. What we don't hear we often see and what we don't see we often hear in her voice. She has a wonderful way of playing off herself and giving us the character one step at a time.
Her flakier sister, Izzy, is beautifully played by Hana Kenny. Like Gardner, Kenny can play through the more difficult moments leaving us wondering if she can feel her own emotions and then turn the whole thing around on a dime to soar through Izzy's emotional scars in front of her sister, her brother-in-law and her mother. Kenny is a beautiful young woman with a wonderful voice and at times I could swear I heard her singing even though there is no outside music in Lindsay-Abaire's words.
Thomas Reilly plays the teenager responsible for the accident. His role calls for an upended emotional coatrack which is usually shoved deep into the character's pants. You never hear it but you can always see it. Reilly has not yet acquired the technique for making that all visible. Nevertheless his performance as Jason is clever and charming and oddly moving in his third and final scene. It seems wrong somehow to just say I enjoyed his work in this part, but that is exactly right: I enjoyed his performance. It was well done and most acceptable.
Howie was played by Jonathan Slocum who turns in an almost text-book performance as the husband who demands his wife feel something rather than bake, but who is, himself, concealing his deepest feelings from his wife, providing them instead to an anonymous grief counseling group. It is Slocum's work in this play that truly holds the piece together. His fragility makes everyone else's reactions to what has happened seem to be those of stoics and stern taskmasters. Slocum slowly, very slowly, reveals what part he has played in all the current actions of the other characters. As he emerges from the darkness surrounding his doings he brings with him the revelatory lights that the others are lacking. He is a saviour figure without a religious forebearance.
Finally there is Lael Locke turning in her finest performance in years. She has not one single mis-step, never overplays, never falls into the easy traps her acting sometimes allows her. Here she is a consummate interpretor of a role. Nat, Becca and Izzy's mother, is not an easy choice for an actress. She is pre-programmed but Locke never gives her her head. Instead she takes each moment and makes it her only moment with a sincerity and reality that is staggering.Not since she played the harp-weaver mother in "I'll Kiss You If It's Tuesday" has she turned in so compellingly natural a performance.
This excellent company has been prepared by director John Trainor in the most remarkable ways. When a need arose on opening night for the young company to address a peculiar situation that held up the play for six minutes, the work Trainor has done with them allowed them the freedom to improvize and set a comedy standard that would last for the next 17 minutes. The director has found pathways between, among and around his characters and he has shepherded his flock beautifully along those paths. A little set change music might have helped the prolonged waits between scenes, but sometimes you just sacrifice for the same of the words.
Cathy Lee-Visscher's set is wonderful and Joanne Maurer's costumes are excellent. John Collins' lighting design was a bit awkward but he will learn from this experience, I trust, not to overlight, overcue and under mood his work. As a team the Trainor collection of cast and crew have delivered up a birthday-cake confection of a show about the inner workings of the minds of the grieving. It's a wonderful way for the Ghent Playhouse to end a season fraught with changes: a comedy about grief played by a company that's great.
Rabbit Hole plays at the Ghent Playhouse, located off of Route 66 in Ghent, NY through June 7. For information and tickets call the box office at 1-800-838-3006 or go on line at www.ghentplayhouse.org.