Well into the lonely march of grief, the characters who populate the devastatingly suburban landscape of David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole are working hard at acting normal. They wash clothes, go to work, bake desserts. But it isn't long before the powerful cast of Stages Repertory Theatre's beautiful Houston premiere of the story shows us how broken these very ordinary and very sad folks are underneath all their seeming normalcy.
In the opening scene, Becca (Shelley Calene-Black) stands in her kitchen, folding laundry and chatting with her younger sister Izzy (Bree Welch) about the young woman's wild night on the town. Annoyed yet resigned, Becca is clearly used to her sister's bad-girl behavior. Still, there's something a little bit strained in the robotic way Becca picks up each tiny shirt in the load of children's clothing she's carefully tucking into tall stacks. This strained undercurrent runs like a dark electricity through the opening and reveals one of the most extraordinary elements of Lindsay-Abaire's writing — the nuance that shapes the emotional lives of his characters is what makes their pain so urgent. Slowly, we discover two truths: Becca is putting away the clothes of her now dead son, permanently, and Izzy is a few weeks pregnant. One sister is desolate while the other is overjoyed, and across this wide chasm of emotional distance they try to converse as though everything is okay.
Theirs isn't the only seemingly impossible emotional barrier. Also struggling are Becca and her brokenhearted husband Howie (Jim Johnson). Each parent is dealing with the loss of their little boy in very different ways. Becca can't bear to have constant reminders of him around her. She wants to put away the photos and the clothes; she begs Howie to sell the house where her tragedy happened. An emotional opposite, Howie spends his nights alone on the couch watching the tapes of his son over and over and over. He clings to the house, because that's where the memories of his child are. And he goes to group therapy to talk about his child. Stoic Becca can't bear the thought of revealing her inner life to strangers. In their separate spheres of deep ache, these two people live together, acting more like strangers than spouses, as each is hidden behind a fortress of guilt and grief.
Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123.
Through March 22. $30.
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There is also Becca's mother Nat (Cristine Macmurdo-Wallace), who tries to share in her daughter's pain but can't break through her carefully hammered armor. Nat's even lost a child of her own, but Becca insists that it's not the same. Her pain is worse because her child was more innocent. It's moments like this that sear through to the raw truth of the inconsolable. The pain of loss can be so deep and so dark, even those who have gone through it can't find their way into the heart of another who is hurt, especially if she doesn't want to be found. Exposure for Becca is harder than keeping it all in the dark.
Interestingly, one of the only characters who can actually touch Becca is Jason (Mark Ivy), the teenage boy who accidentally ran over her son. Jason is also devastated by the death, even though it was a true accident, and as Lindsay-Abaire tells us over and over, nobody was at fault. Jason wants to speak to Becca and Howie. And when he finally does, it's clear that he wants to both confess and receive absolution, a grace Becca is capable of, in part because she sees her own child in Jason's adolescent pain.
The story is stunning in part because of the austerity with which it's told. Nobody goes weeping into the night. No character rages against any other. In fact, as in a true Greek tragedy, all the violence happens offstage. We hear about the accident and about the angry physical rage that both Becca and her sister engage in, but don't see it. What we do see are the spiritual and emotional violations of living one day, and then the next, and then the next, numb with grief. And the cast that director Leslie Swackhamer shapes this subtle story with has stepped inside this world with grace and tender respect for the pain and joys each character feels. These don't feel like performances so much as lives lived in quiet agony.
Swackhamer finds the truth of this story and spreads it out with hushed care over the space at Stages. Liz Freese's set is perfect in its suburban beige-ness. Calene-Black and Johnson are moving and mesmerizing as the couple trying to live through this death. And Welch, along with Macmurdo-Wallace and Ivy, provides the perfect balance to the couple. This production will give its audience lots to discuss for days afterward. Moments will find their way down into the secret spots of the heart where sadness beats quietly in all of us.