Piece on grief is a delight
Chances are you've been to a play or two where the most memorable scene was the request to turn off cell phones and unwrap candy before the show begins. Never fear. After the lights dim out in the final, wrenching scene of David Lindsay-Abaire's "Rabbit Hole,” the only way you'll remember those mundane requests will be by discovering when you get home that your phone is off and there's a peppermint patty wrapper in your pocket.
Chances are you've never been to a play where the ushers hand out tissues between acts. This is exactly what happened at a performance of this 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama at Theatreworks New Milford. Nearly every patron grabbed a fistful.
In the opening scene, in a kitchen of an upscale home in Westchester County, we know that something bad has recently happened to one of two sisters, Becca (Jackie Decho-Holm) or Izzy (Heather Nicolson). Becca Corbett is the quiet sister, calmly folding laundry that is obviously a young preschool boy's. Izzy is the loud, hell-raising sister, recounting her recent bar fight, much to her sister's chagrin. Eventually we learn that Izzy is pregnant by the former boy friend of the woman she slugged in the bar, news that seems to upset Becca.
"You think it's too soon?” Izzy asks.
That's when we realize that one of these women recently lost a son. Just as we can't discern these kinds of secrets by looking at faces in a crowd, neither can we tell from the faces or actions of these two women. Becca's face reveals nothing. Izzy's irresponsible behavior could be her attempt to escape the memory of loss.
But no, it was Becca's 4-year-old son, Danny, who eight months earlier had died when he chased his dog into the road and was struck by a car. Becca seems to deal with it by not dealing with it. Her life is stalled. Her husband, Howie (Kevin Sosbe), feels the grief in two ways: he has lost his beloved son and he feels he has lost his wife. When he tries to watch a video of his son, he is appalled to discover that Becca accidentally recorded over it. "You have to stop erasing him,” he shouts.
Becca says the erasure was an accident, just like Danny's death. "Do you really think that I don't see him every day?” she says.
There are touching scenes with Beccas's hard-drinking mother, Nat (Sonnie Osborne), who a decade earlier had also lost a son, Becca and Izzy's 30-year-old, drug-addicted brother. Becca resents the implied comparison to her innocent 4-year-old son. In one scene, where Becca and Nat are going through Danny's toys to decide what to keep and what to give away, Becca asks if the feeling of grief ever goes away. Nat says it will always be there, like a brick in your pocket. But, she implies, it is worth having. "It's what you have instead of your son.”
There is a surprise visit by Jason (Rob Onorato), the teenaged boy who was driving the car that struck Danny. Howie sees Jason's appearance as an intrusion and kicks him out of the house. But Becca later warms to him, realizing that his life has changed too. Jason, who lost his father, shows her a copy of a story he wrote, in which a boy looks for his dead father in a warren of tunnels – rabbit holes – of a parallel universe. He believes that such rabbit holes truly exist, because space is infinite and therefore there are infinite possibilities.
"You mean,” Becca asks, "that somewhere there is a version of me that is happy?” That is when we know that the brick in her pocket has become an ounce or two lighter.
This is not an easy play to tackle, but director Susan Pettibone has brought out the best in these five fine actors. Nicolson's Izzy swears off booze as her pregnancy advances, showing a maturing character. Decho-Holm's Becca comes out of her shell, actually pulling an Izzy by smacking a woman in the grocery store who wouldn't buy a $3 snack for her young son. Sosbe's Howie shows just the right amount of controlled rage at Jason's appearance, and he cries real tears of rage when he discovers the video of his son has been erased. Osborne's Nat is 100 percent believable as a slightly tipsy, meddling, but sympathetic mother. And gangly Onorato, a junior at Brookfield High School, is a surprisingly perfect Jason: socially awkward yet radiating intelligence and sensitivity.
If there is any token criticism to render, it would be that Becca seems at times to be too inscrutable, too blank-faced, even for a character who is in denial; and that a few of the scenes lack action: there's a lot of sitting at sofas and just talking.
"Rabbit Hole” won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize without even being nominated, and the proof is in the boxes of tissues the ushers keep running out of. Don't miss it.