Wednesday, January 18, 2012
It happens infrequently, but sometimes playwrights leave instructions with their published plays, an act that can seem either the ultimate in hubris or a necessary guide to directors and casts. With Rabbit Hole, a 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire, those instructions definitely fall in the latter category. He recognized that death as the center of play presents a particular challenge, a delicate balance between a thoughtful portrait of death and a maudlin Lifetime TV-movie of the week. On the last page of his script, Lindsay-Abaire provides “a little guidance” to all those who perform his play: avoid the tears; it is crucial advice that director Nathaneal Trahan chose to ignore. Make no mistake, the resulting APAA production is good, but it could have been outstanding.
The elephant in the room in this play is not hidden at all: Becca and Howie, a suburban couple, have lost their only child Danny eight months previously, and the family is still recovering from that loss. Such a death seems all the more tragic than, let’s say, the death of an elderly person who has lived a full life, as the cliché goes. Any death, however, rips a gaping hole in the universe of the lives of the remaining people, and the more intimate the relationship, the more devastating the abyss. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has written the seminal work On Death and Dying, and retired UL Professor Dr. Sarah Brabant composed Mending the Torn Fabric: For Those Who Grieve and Those Who Want to Help Them, both extremely insightful books on the topic.
Dramas about death are not uncommon; Wit and Tuesdays with Morrie have characters who are dying on stage, but Rabbit Hole deals with the aftermath, with how people cope. Each of the play’s five characters approach the grieving process in different ways. Howie (Michael Cato) does not want to forget his son, but does wish to move on, since he sees his marriage as trapped in limbo. Nat (Jody L. Powell), Becca’s sometimes-coarse mother, sees her daughter desperately ensnared by Danny’s death and tries to push her daughter toward healing. Izzy (Amanda McBride), Becca’s younger, impulsive, self-destructive sister, finds herself an after-thought in this family, a position she frequently holds. She will soon have a child of her own, a sore spot in the family dynamic given Danny’s absence, and she resents that something good in her life is twisted as an attack upon her older, straight-laced sister. The only non-family member is Jason (André Trahan), the unfortunate teen who accidentally hits Danny with his car as the young boy was chasing his dog into the street. He, too, must grapple with the death that he caused, no matter how inadvertent.
Becca’s character, however, is the play’s pivotal focus, and Lindsay-Abaire has made it eminently clear who Becca is: a fiercely in-control woman who has steeled herself against this horrific heartbreak by shutting down emotionally. His play presents an unusual dynamic in that all stereotypes are thrown out: Howie is the man in touch with his emotions, and it is Becca who has locked them away because they understandably cause too much pain. Having lost a son of her own, Nat can empathize with her daughter’s plight. Nat recognizes that Becca is not doing herself any good by shutting out the world, and she even arranges an intervention of sorts to jumpstart her daughter’s emotional life. Becca is the play’s eye-of-the-storm in the middle of a hurricane, whilst all around her are learning to deal with death’s never-ending presence, and the author points that out in his instructive letter. That’s what makes Monique Arabie’s performance as Becca so out of place with the author’s intent. Ms. Arabie is affecting, please understand that, but she is on the verge of tears from the moment she enters the scene, and stays on that note for the entire two hours. It gives her nowhere to go emotionally, and it completely undermines her emotional breakdown in the supermarket where she assaults a mother who is callously disregarding the screaming wails of an unhappy child who wants fruit rollups. It makes a much more powerful impact, as the author intended, when this tightly controlled Becca loses it and lashes out at the world in a manner more appropriate to her ne’er-do-well sister Izzy. Why Trahan as director and Arabie as actress chose this openly emotional route puzzles me, and it doesn’t help that the role has been played by Tony Award-winning Cynthia Nixon and Oscar-nominated Nicole Kidman. Actors sometimes try to imitate the movie actors in famous plays—think Katharine Hepburn in The Lion In Winter—but this is one case where such a study would have provided valuable insight.
Before the reader thinks I did not like this play, perish the thought. The actors did a good job of dancing around this indelicate topic. Michael Cato is particularly good at showing his frustration with his stalled marriage, and it’s ironic that he, who has tried to move on, can’t see Jason, the teenager who killed his son, but his wife Becca is ready and willing to converse with him. Jody L. Powell brings a pro’s touch to the acerbic Nat, and I was inwardly giggling at the inappropriateness of Nat’s lengthy diatribe on the Kennedy family curse, when all else seem to realize the topic of death is verboten. Ms. Powell understands that humor is crucial to both this play and to dealing with death, and her speech in Danny’s room about how people want to help is priceless. Though he has little stage time, André Trahan nicely underplays the nervous youth who has to mix the awkwardness of growing up with the confusing dynamic of ending someone’s life. I particularly appreciated Amanda McBride, whose Izzy was a consistent thorn in everyone’s side. As the invisible younger sister, Izzy wants attention, and McBride never stooped to caricature; the audience genuinely feels for her when her birthday party erupts into a family fight over Becca’s inability to cope. And for all that I’ve harped over the way Becca should be played, Monique Arabie is a talented actress and I look forward to more of her work.
I must marvel at Nathaneal Trahan, however, for choosing to perform this play in a home. Ben Brantley, the New York Times theatre critic whose reviews I read frequently, often sees innovative and modern turns on this age-old art, and now I understand some of what he sees. To follow the characters from room to room did give the play an extra intimacy, and watching Michael Cato view a video of his son was heart-wrenching (Wherever Trahan found that charismatic young boy for Danny in the video, I’ll never know.) Having a play in a house presents unique challenges, however, as in how to end a scene, where in a theatre, the lights’ dimming would provide such a cue. Providing music worked to end each scene, but the play’s final scene needs a few more seconds. Becca and Howie are sitting at the dining room table, finally talking about the critical first steps they have to take. The silent gaps between their lines are as important as the lines themselves, and when they finally grab each other’s hands, it’s not so much a reaffirmation that everything will be all right as it is an acknowledgement that this marriage may not work at all. The other three actors off-stage—well, in this case, in another room—need to give Becca and Howie more time to hold those precious digits, for the night I went, they came out too soon, and the scene’s impact was diminished.
There are three more performances, January 20th, 21st, and 22nd, all at 7:30 pm, and tickets are available by calling 288-6329. There is also a Facebook page that includes clear directions to the home. Bravo to the director and cast for tackling this most difficult play. As one who has experienced death, I know too well the desolation it leaves in its wake. I just wish they had listened a little more to the author’s “little guidance.”
---Vincent P. Barras