Rabbit Hole is darker and deeper than advertised | Theater | Indy Week
Pin It

Rabbit Hole is darker and deeper than advertised 

After great pain, a formal feeling

Rabbit Hole
Manbites Dog Theater

Through Dec. 22

click to enlarge (Left to right) Marcia Edmundson, Derrick Ivey and Katja Hill in Rabbit Hole - PHOTO BY ALAN DEHMER

We can understand why Rabbit Hole won this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama. Much like the Orphean myth alluded to in one of its closing sequences, the play follows a married couple, Becca and Howie, through the emotional underworld of grief, some eight months after the accidental death of their small child, Danny.

The veritas of their icy, brittle exchanges, with mooky or boorish relatives and each other, convincingly conveys the formal feeling that Emily Dickinson once wrote of as coming after death; a dynamic that artistic director Jeff Storer fully explores in this Manbites Dog Theater production with noted actors Katja Hill and Derrick Ivey. All in all, these qualities make this a show worthy of superlatives—but one also requiring a consumers' advisory as well along the way.

By now, regional theater-goers have come to associate playwright David Lindsay-Abaire with a series of screwball comedies, largely predicated on medical quirks or psychological disabilities. In Manbites Dog's rewarding 2001 production of Fuddy Meers, the playwright found improbably appealing slapstick in characters with aphasia and psychogenic amnesia while, a couple of years after, Actors Comedy Lab's Wonder of the World hinged on an outlandish sexual dysfunction or two. Though Kimberly Akimbo has not been produced locally, its world premiere during the 2000 National Critics Institute completely disarmed an audience of hard-nosed theater insiders as it explored the dysfunctions of a family dealing with a daughter with progeria, the accelerated aging disease. Need we note that none of these situations provides the most easily minable terrain for comedy?

At first, the same seems the case here. The playwright's title winks at us, while the company's promotional material promises a "bittersweet comedy" to "share with your family this holiday season." And regular Indy cartoonist V. Cullum Rogers' whimsical show poster leaves us nothing to dread—inappropriately so as we later find, when we discern the moment his drawing actually depicts.

As a result, those expecting the pratfalls—or even the redemptive laughter—of Lindsay-Abaire's previous works are likely to feel they've been rabbit-punched well before the end of Rabbit Hole.

Yes, we laugh as Becca's streetwise younger sister Izzy (a tart Nicole Quenelle) appalls her with an account of her latest combination of bar fight and romance (a tale she tells while mooching a crème caramel in big sister's achingly pristine kitchen). Later, their mother Nat (Marcia Edmundson) demonstrates a Kennedy family obsession that provides a gleeful moment of poor taste before it sparks the implosion of another family gathering—itself, one of the playwright's signature moves.

But, particularly in the last example, Lindsay-Abaire keeps the comic well separated from the relief. A queasy sense of old wounds reopened—inadvertently at first, but later with intent—negates the early, easy laughter. Repeatedly, we think someone's going to get hurt, just before we realize that someone already has been. Throughout Rabbit Hole, the playwright seems to factor and ration out the minimum quantity of laughs and tension breaks that his characters and audience need just to withstand it all. In the last analysis, though Lindsay-Abaire's few jokes are effective, they don't mask the starkness underneath.

The ominous ending of this decidedly austere work explores another aspect of the Orphean myth: that the longer the living spend in the sunless lands, the more they themselves become like the dead. During the play's endgame, Storer's direction and the acting of Hill and Ivey make it clear that husband and wife, though together, are fundamentally alone, gripped in the icy isolation of their own grief. But just as they acknowledge what they've been doing isn't working, their brittle stiffness turns absolute. All movement stops. Each stares ahead, completely frozen, for a moment in time. At the least.

In short, it's one of the most compelling portrayals of loss I've seen in months on the regional stage. It is also verifiably no comedy at all. Still, the integrity of such moments is one of the things that makes Rabbit Hole well worth seeing—even if it isn't exactly the production that was advertised.

E-mail Byron Woods at bwoods@indyweek.com.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in Theater

Twitter Activity


Point well taken. I wish more people had seen HE/SHE AND ME at The Womens' Theatre Festival, an intriguing original …

by Jerry Sipp on Plays About LGBTQ History Are Plentiful in the Triangle. We Need Them All. But Isn’t It Time to Look Ahead? (Theater)

Most Recent Comments

Point well taken. I wish more people had seen HE/SHE AND ME at The Womens' Theatre Festival, an intriguing original …

by Jerry Sipp on Plays About LGBTQ History Are Plentiful in the Triangle. We Need Them All. But Isn’t It Time to Look Ahead? (Theater)

Quite an insightful assessment. I believe Mr. Britt has many strong points. In order for North Carolinas theaters to successfully …

by nperry on Plays About LGBTQ History Are Plentiful in the Triangle. We Need Them All. But Isn’t It Time to Look Ahead? (Theater)

Several remarkable songs, too, including Huldy's exuberantly hilarious "murder ballad" that brings down the house.

by chuck02 on The Moors Trains the Devices of the Brontë Sisters' Novels on a Toothsome Critique of Gothic Romance (Theater)

© 2018 Indy Week • 320 E. Chapel Hill St., Suite 200, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation