Coping with the death of a child as the subject of a play could be a real downer. But as gifted playwright David Lindsay-Abaire proves in the Tony-nominated Rabbit Hole, it can also be downright funny. In this exquisitely crafted drama about loss and bereavement, Lindsay-Abaire finds the delicate balance between heartache and humor.
With lesser actors, too, the play could easily dissolve into kitschy soap opera or a therapy session using as fodder Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grieving. That Rabbit Hole doesn't is owing to the beautifully restrained performances of a phenomenal cast and Michael Bloom's sensitive, understated direction which drives right to the core of the play's meaning.
Just as in real life, the characters navigate the difficult terrain of grief by talking around the subject. The perfectly attuned ensemble brilliantly captures the cadences of the overlapping, naturalistic dialogue, with its intermittent stops and starts and awkward silences as each character struggles with their feelings. In a play with no wasted words, what isn't said is as revealing as what is said, with body language speaking volumes.
The story centers on Becca and Howie Corbett, who lost their four-year old-son, Danny, eight months before the play begins. Not only do they handle their grief in different ways. Becca copes by keeping busy and getting rid of things that remind her of her son, including his clothes, the family dog, and putting the house up for sale. Howie tries to cling to the past by watching home movies of happier times when Danny was alive. Michael Lincoln's mood lighting dims one scene to virtual darkness in which the shadowy figure of Howie, watching the video as Becca looks on, is barely visible. As the action shifts from kitchen to living room to Danny's bedroom, Russell Parkman's turntable set recreates the Corbetts suburban home with stunning clarity.
Becca's younger sister Izzy, and their mother, Nat, also deal with their grief in different ways as well. It ultimately takes the unexpected appearance of Jason, the teenager who drove the car that accidentally killed Danny, to catalyze some healing.
As the tightly coiled, self-controlled Becca and repressed, angry Howie, Angela Reed and Danton Stone convey the unbearable tension, pain, and self-blame of parents trying to make sense of their son's death. Meanwhile, much of the play's humor centers Izzy (the effervescent Genevieve Elam) and the well-meaning, meddlesome Nat (a sympathetic Kate Skinner) who tries to console Becca but only makes matters worse. Troy Deutsch is a marvel as the anguished Jason, struggling with his guilt.
One of the most moving scenes takes place in the meeting between a visibly uncomfortable Jason and Becca. As Jason talks about his prom with a mixture of reticence and adolescent happiness, a smiling Becca suddenly bursts into tears. Reed's seamless transition from laughter to sobbing is a masterful piece of acting.
Rabbit Hole runs September 15-October 8 at The Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland. Tickets: (216) 795-7000. Website: www.clevelandplayhouse.com.