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Grief Up Close and Unsurprising: Rabbit Hole at the Arden Theatre

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Photo Courtesy of the Arden TheatreWhat I love about live theatre, in comparison to its polished progeny the cinema, is its immediacy. David Lindsay-Abraire’s Rabbit Hole, now on stage at the Arden Theatre, visits a suburban couple, Becca (Grace Gonglewski) and Howie (Brian Russell), eight months after the loss of their four-year-old child Danny. It is sad to lose a child. The grief does not go away quickly or easily. It affects each parent and family member in a different way and each person deals with grief differently. I knew this before I saw Rabbit Hole; I haven’t experienced it first hand, but it doesn’t take a surplus of empathy to intuit. Still, it is one thing to know that it would be sad to lose a child, it is another to see a couple’s grief laid bare on stage. 

Rabbit Hole washes its audience in waves of sympathy and understanding, with an immediacy that at times pushes our comfort level. But the play is working with material which we expect to be fraught with emotional complexity and it never challenges our expectations. The plot seems taken from a Lifetime movie, its twists are obvious and too well signposted, the characters a little too neat: Becca’s quirky sister Izzy (Julianna Zinkel) is pregnant; her well-meaning but overbearing mother Nat (Janet Dardanis) lost a son years earlier; Howie works in risk management. 

Photo Courtesy of the Arden TheatreRabbit Hole won a host of awards and accolades on its inaugural Broadway run, including a Pulitzer for Best Drama and a Tony for its leading lady, Sex in the City’s Cynthia Nixon. This suggests that the Broadway staging overcame the cookie-cutter storyline and tapped into Lindsay-Abraire’s humor and honesty in a way that the Arden’s production comes close to doing, but ultimately fails to do. 

The Arden’s cast is not without talent. Russell makes a welcome return to the theater after his fantastic turn as a blind Irish drunk in last season’s The Seafarer. That he plays such a different character with such conviction is a tribute to his skill and versatility. Gonglewski is convincing as a suburban mother whose raison d’être has been prematurely stripped. Dardanis’s masterly timing provides much of the play’s humor as she creates a portrait of a good-intentioned but irritating mother that will be familiar to all. 

Aaron Stall, a student at Temple University, shows some skill as Jason, the high school senior who hit Danny with his car. Noting that the Arden’s excellent young cast for their production of The History Boys also included several college-age Philadelphia actors, one can hold high hopes for the future of Philadelphia theater. 

Photo Courtesy of the Arden TheatreBut unlike in that top-notch production, the actors in the Rabbit Hole fail to jell, leaving the dialogue as disconnected speech instead of smooth conversation. This is most unfortunately true in the play’s climactic scene, when Jason meets with Becca to try to overcome his own guilt over Danny’s death. 

Apparently, Nicole Kidman was so taken by reviews of the Broadway production that she is producing a movie based on the play, with her in the leading role. Perhaps Kidman can avoid the script’s pitfalls when she brings it to the screen.

Details:

Rabbit Hole

Arden Theatre Company, Arcadia Stage

40 N. 2nd Street

On stage through December 20th, 2009

Tickets, $29–$48