Rabbit Hole: Smart and soulful

"Things aren't nice anymore": Amy McDonald as Becca, Lee Mark Nelson as Howie
Michal Daniel

at the Jungle Theater
through May 11;

This mortal life, so suffused with those whom we can't imagine going on without; it's nothing short of an emotional minefield. For those of us who become parents, fate ratchets up the stakes between protection and fickle chance. It's a connoisseur's meal of pain, the notion that the dice-throw of probability might toss snake eyes, rendering us permanently damaged by circumstance. It's also the world of David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole.

The action opens in a home of contemporary affluence, where Becca (Amy McDonald) testily folds clothes while listening to her younger sister Izzy (Maggie Chestovich) outline the details of a recent bar dust-up. Izzy clearly occupies the role of family fuck-up, having just been fired from Applebee's, while McDonald plays Becca as pinched, tart, and disapproving. We're apt not to sympathize until, after the sisters talk around the subject for a while, we learn that Becca lost her only child 10 months earlier in a fatal accident in front of the house.

Later that night, husband Howie (Lee Mark Nelson) arrives and, over wine, makes an unsuccessful play for his wife. We learn that they haven't slept together since their son's death, and Becca's features twist with indignity over the very notion (walking upstairs, she turns back and leans hard on the line, "Things aren't nice anymore").

Lindsay-Abaire draws deep on the idea of procreation and death in their intertwined dance. Izzy reveals she's knocked up, and the sisters' mother, Nat (Nancy Marvy), embarks on a long digression about the tragedy-prone history of the Kennedys (it's a brutal moment, though Marvy invests her oblivious prattler with a what-the-hell charm). All the while, at about eye level on director and designer Bain Boehlke's set, is a boy's empty bedroom, full of posters and toys that have outlived their use.

Things go south when a letter arrives from Jason, the teenage boy who ran over the child (Jason wants to dedicate a sci-fi story to the late Daniel, a tale in which a boy searches through alternate universes for a lost father). Becca's mood sours even more when she accidentally tapes over a video of Daniel, and Howie accuses her of wanting to erase all traces of their child.

It is the crucial scene, after which Act Two feels like (admittedly vital) denouement. Nelson, until now talking as though an unseen hand has encircled his vocal cords, puts a bit of controlled fire into Howie. McDonald, for her part, launches her character from passive-aggressive to, well, aggressive. It turns out Howie and Becca both feel the primal need to move on, but each resents seeing it in the other. This production teases out the idea with consummate subtlety, along the way revealing both characters' fundamental decency and the impossible dilemma they face.

The play is neatly divided into eight scenes split evenly around the intermission, with the stage going black in between; here structural neatness drives home the monotony of grief.

The second act opens with the couple hosting an open house to sell the place, a fine idea until in walks Jason (Jason Peterson). Howie gives him the bum's rush, which comes after Becca reveals that she has just slapped a woman at the local supermarket. Clearly we have a play that regards the healing process as incremental at best.

Before matters conclude, Jason and Becca have a nice little interlude, in which Jason offers his firm belief in the literal existence of parallel universes, where everything that can happen does happen. (Becca observes that this universe contains "the sad versions of us.") It's as much comfort as this incisively intelligent and soulful drama can offer. By the time McDonald's and Nelson's characters have a last, exhausted talk, their richly precise performances earn a final note of optimism, though in its most conditional form imaginable. Sometimes it's all we have, even when the fickle arrow of probability has spared us for the moment.

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