The Landscape of Grief Is Marred by Uneven Casting in Rabbit Hole

The setup:

We hear it on the news almost daily. A fatal car crash has taken the life of X. We listen. We say “how awful.” Our lucky stars get thanked that the person isn’t our parent/sibling/partner/friend while we simultaneously imagine how we would cope if the victim were in fact a loved one.

Many of us realize that we really don’t know how we’d react. That old Cherokee saying, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes,” pops into our heads and we take it as astute advice. Mostly we just don’t want to think about the potential loss. It’s simply too tragic and uncomfortable an occurrence to hold in our minds for very long.

But that’s exactly what David Lindsay-Abaire wants us to do in his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Rabbit Hole. He wants us to consider the landscape of grief, watch how it seeps into every crevice and bear witness to the survivors as they carve out their own individual paths to healing.

Becca and Howie are struggling to come to terms with the recent car accident that killed their little boy, Danny. But losing a son isn’t the only struggle the couple is dealing with. That they have opposite methods of mourning is at best causing them to drift apart and at worst threatens to undo their marriage. Practical and slightly tetchy Becca wants to rid their home of Danny’s things and sell the house in order for them to move forward as a childless couple. Howie’s healing consists of endlessly watching home movies of his son and suggesting another baby is the answer.

Meanwhile, salt is being poured in wounds all around them. Becca’s wild-child sister Izzy is pregnant; Nat, Becca’s opinionated mother, doles out unhelpful advice; the group therapy sessions have been a disaster, with Becca refusing to attend; and Izzy suspects Howie of having a secret affair with another grieving mother. Onto this shaky ground comes Jason, the teenage boy who accidentally ran Danny over, asking to show the couple his science fiction story about portals to other universes (rabbit holes) that he wants to dedicate to Danny.

Grief and guilt are the burdens of every character. How the characters handle those burdens and how they define them make up our time with this show.

The execution:

Right off the bat, we realize that while there is plenty of anguish on offer in Lindsay-Abaire’s play, this will not be an emotional cacophony of melodramatic sobbing and weepy heart-string pulling. This is grief in constraint. Perhaps these characters did wail in sorrow and claw at their clothes in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, but as the play opens, eight months have passed since Danny’s death. Enough time for Howie to be back at work, for the family to celebrate Izzy’s birthday and for Becca to be preparing to donate Danny’s clothes to charity.

While Lisa Scofield’s drab set design (the interior of Becca and Howie’s home) looks as if it belongs in a trailer park rather than to this affluent couple (we see Becca’s lovely diamond stud earrings twinkle all night), Schofield as director starts us off on an excellent foot. Immediately we’re treated to a superbly paced and utterly natural scene between soccer mom-ish Becca (an uptight but kind Kelly Walker) and her younger wayward sister Izzy (played with perfect-pitch sass by Jenna Morris). The sisters banter about Danny, Izzy’s recent bar fight, their shared frustration at their mother, Becca’s seemingly endless ability to bake and Izzy’s pregnancy revelation. Walker and Morris together exude sisterly warmth while allowing just the right amount of sibling animosity and button-pushing to underpin their interaction. Instantly we know who these women are and we see the pain of loss underlying even their lighter moments.

It’s a shame then that Howie (the eager but unconvincing Jonathan Moonen) has to come into the picture and disrupt the splendid timing and authenticity of the show thus far. Howie is laid-back to Becca’s tight winding, but instead of playing it with ease, Moonen too often tilts to smarm in his capitulation to and placation of his wife. The result is a bit of a creep factor not helped by a delivery that feels about one beat off, as if Moonen is waiting for his lines as opposed to reacting to the others onstage. Even when Lindsay-Abaire allows for the one largesse emotional moment in the script following Becca’s inadvertent erasing of an early home video of Danny, Moonen’s disconnect from the material hampers our belief in his pain despite a decent amount of yelling/crying.

Still, Schofield does a terrific job allowing the humorous moments of the play to shine through. While Izzy has amusing turns as the smart-mouthed foil to her sister and brother-in-law, it’s Becca’s loose-lipped mom, Nat (terrifically played by Stephanie Rascoe Myers), who disturbs and delights with her funny foot-in-mouth outbursts. A couple of glasses of wine are all it takes for Nat to ramble with hysterical, cringe-factor flourish about the curse of the Kennedy clan, somehow thinking her outrageous warnings against ending up like Ari Onassis are comforting and instructive for everyone.

Comfort is a key theme in Lindsay-Abaire’s play. “Where are you getting your comfort?” Nat asks a stoic but unassuaged Becca. When Becca and Howie lock horns around their disparate approaches to mourning, Becca fights back against Howie’s judgment by stating, “You are not in a better place than me. You are just in a different place and it sucks that we can’t be there for each other.” Comfort, it seems, is a series of missed opportunities. That is, until Jason (played with considered sensitivity by Tony Brown in his professional acting debut) comes into the picture.

Howie rails against the idea of talking to Jason, but Becca, as usual doing what she wants (getting rid of Danny’s clothes, putting the house up for sale), decides to meet the young man who accidentally took her boy’s life. Schofield’s thoughtful direction and excellent performances by Walker and Brown bring utter heartbreak to this moment. Brown’s Jason is soft-spoken and sensitive as he alternates between telling Becca stories of the fun he had at his graduation party and pathetically confessing that maybe he was going a mile or two over the speed limit the day he hit Danny. Jason has his whole life ahead of him, but he’s haunted and scarred and in need of the kind of absolution that even Becca’s forgiveness can’t give him.

For her part, Becca does walk away from their meeting with a small iota of ease — a feeling that perhaps like the parallel universes Jason has written about, she is somewhere else having a good time. It’s a small comfort to cling to, but that’s Lindsay-Abaire’s point in all of this. You may crawl out from under grief, but you sure as hell better be prepared to carry it around with you forever.

The verdict:

Thanks to a fairly gutless conclusion that seems to abandon the couple’s loggerheads for a state of vague, one-day-at-a-time platitude, Lindsay-Abaire allows the pent-up conflict to peter out in rather a disappointing fashion. We may have accepted that this play is tone far more than arc, but after two acts of bathing in muffled and stagnant grief and discordant coping, we yearn for some change in the atmosphere.

We also yearn for a Howie that we can empathize with. Despite the splendid performances by the rest of the cast, Moonen’s inability to delve into the grief or relate to the other actors takes away the stakes in the show. Our pain is not for him. Our concern about his marriage is absent. Without these believable conflicts, we lose the incentive to fully engage and find ourselves wishing for our own rabbit hole into an alternative universe where everything could come together in a more satisfying fashion.

Rabbit Hole continues through March 12 at Theatre Southwest, 8944A Clarkcrest. For tickets, email or call 713-661-9505. $18-$16.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman