In 'Rabbit Hole,' Grief Runs Deep

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

When disaster strikes, victims howl with pain. What happens, though, when the cries fade away but the anguish lingers?

That's where David Lindsay-Abaire situates his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "Rabbit Hole," being performed with heartbreaking delicacy at the Olney Theatre Center. A young boy has died, and Lindsay-Abaire picks up the story months later, with the child's parents still trying to cope.

It takes a while to register that these middle-class suburbanites are in the throes of grief. The show at Olney opens with light from a refrigerator as someone looks for food; throughout the performance, characters occupy themselves with everyday tasks: folding laundry, fiddling with videotape, serving birthday cake and wine.

The tidy kitchen of Marie-Noëlle Daigneault's meticulously realistic set on Olney's wide main stage is a particular refuge, with any number of brief but diverting tasks for Becca, the boy's mother, to throw herself into. Becca hardly seems a mess; the first scene, in fact, hinges on a funny rant from Becca's slightly reckless sister Izzy, who is explaining why she punched another woman in a bar.

Becca is clearly the more mature sibling, yet as Lindsay-Abaire reveals the situation by slow degrees, you realize that this composure is the facade of a wrecked woman barely holding on. As Becca, Deborah Hazlett is tense in quiet, subtle ways: Note her rigid posture on the couch, her stiff shoulders and slightly tart retorts, those measured retreats to the safe ground of the kitchen. In the writing and particularly in Hazlett's pivotal performance, this is grief writ small and true.

Of course, things are no easier for Howie, Becca's husband, who's trying to cope in his own way. The idiosyncrasy of mourning is richly rendered in scenes that unfold at an unhurried and naturalistic pace, and Paul Morella's easygoing yet combustible turn as Howie keeps the show on a sympathetic yet potentially messy plain. Should Howie and Becca sell the house? Have another child? Agree to speak with the high school kid who drove the car in which their boy died? Rifts are everywhere, and even with the best of intentions, these characters find it hard to speak without finding a difference that stings.

"Rabbit Hole" is more directly honest than the antic material with which Lindsay-Abaire first made his mark ("Fuddy Meers," "Kimberly Akimbo"), and director Mitchell Hébert rigorously keeps false notes at bay. Only late, and only briefly, does a speech feel like a speech, something written rather than felt (the few well-judged comic exchanges excepted).

That's the writing, not the acting, which here seems to regard lyricism and sentiment as disreputable vices. Megan Anderson keeps the loopiness in check as Izzy; Kate Kiley, as Izzy and Becca's mother, soft-pedals the character's button-pushing tendencies; and Aaron Bliden makes a deceptively simple appearance as the young driver still trying to find his own way clear of the accident.

"Deceptively simple" is the operating phrase for the whole show, for "Rabbit Hole" might sound like TV movie melodrama -- and it might yet become that in the film version, which is planned with Nicole Kidman in the starring role. Onstage, though, it's coolly governed and consistently moving, evoking scattered sniffles from the audience Saturday night without ever acting like a three-hankie tear-jerker.

Rabbit Hole, by David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by Mitchell Hébert. Costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lights, Charlie Morrison; sound design, Jarett C. Pisani. About two hours. Through Aug. 31 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit

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