Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addressed the State of Michigan after a plan to kidnap her and other Michigan government officials was thwarted by state and federal law enforcement agencies. She started by saying thank you to law enforcement and FBI agents who participated in stopping this [...]
“There’s nothing so devastating as losing a child,” my mother remarked years ago upon learning of the death of a friend’s young son. “No one can understand the pain those parents are going through unless they, too, have been unfortunate enough to experience it.”
Those haunting words came flooding back while watching the Michigan premiere of “Rabbit Hole” last Saturday night at Meadow Brook Theatre.
In his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, David Lindsay-Abaire explores the emotional damage and, eventually, the paths to healing that follow the sudden death of a four-year-old boy who chased his dog into the street and was killed by a teenage driver. And as the playwright so powerfully reveals, FOUR lives have been irrevocably shattered by the accident, and each must come to terms with the tragedy in his own way – and at his own pace.
Eight months have passed since Danny’s death, yet his upscale home still shows signs of his presence: His bedroom is virtually untouched; his paintings are still taped to the refrigerator; and family photos are still on the living room mantle. But what’s missing is any evidence of emotional support between his still-grieving parents. Becca and Howie, it seems, inhabit different universes within the same house.
News that Becca’s younger, unmarried and much wilder sister is pregnant helps pry open the floodgates. But will an unexpected letter – and later, a visit – from the high school senior who hit the child serve as the catalyst for change? Or will Jason’s appearance only deepen the divide that’s keeping the parents apart?
A father himself, Lindsay-Abaire created the Tony-nominated drama after being challenged by playwright Marsha Norman to write about “something that frightened him.” The result is a carefully-crafted and deceptively complex tale about ordinary people fighting through a nightmarish ordeal in order to move forward with their lives. Little dialogue is wasted in telling the story; even the most seemingly innocuous statements are vitally important. And as the plot unfolds and the pretenses fall away, the playwright’s grasp on the audience grows tighter. (This is the only drama I’ve attended in recent memory where the audience passionately applauded after almost every scene.)
The path to staging such an emotional play is fraught with road mines, however. With little action to break up the dialogue, “Rabbit Hole” requires a director who understands pacing – and who can help the actors dig deeply into their characters to find every nuance the author provided them. Plus, the cast must have the skill to switch emotions – believably – in an instant. Anything less could cause widespread napping in the seats.
That certainly doesn’t happen with this superb production.
Director Leo Geter makes an impressive Meadow Brook debut. A noted character actor whose film and television credits include “Single Bars, Single Women,” “Footloose,” “Northern Exposure” and “In the Heat of the Night,” Geter made his directorial debut in 2002 with the film “Andy Across the Water.” With “Rabbit Hole,” he briskly moves the story along, with only a few brief pauses between scenes. (This helps keep the momentum rolling.) But more importantly, Geter never allows the show to get bogged down in cheap sentiment. Instead, both the humor – of which there’s plenty – and the pathos are genuine and heart-felt – and the audience can’t help but respond in kind.
It’s his splendid cast, though, that especially shines.
Eighteen-year-old Sean O’Reilly, also making his MBT debut, is thoroughly believable as Jason, crushed under the weight of guilt for his unintentional role in Danny’s death. (He might have been speeding one or two miles above the limit at the time of the accident. And he wants the parents to know that.) It’s a perfectly forlorn performance, with every emotion well-played.
Comedy relief is offered by longtime audience favorite Henrietta Hermelin, who storms the stage as Becca’s chatty and opinionated mother, Nat. It’s yet another delightful and expertly-executed romp by this beloved jewel of the Michigan stage.
And Inga R. Wilson can express more with a single word and a piercing glance than any other actor in the area.
But it’s the exceptional teamwork of Sarab Kamoo (Becca) and Chip DuFord (Howie) that generates the most heat. Although both characters are traveling very different roads to recovery, the actors are navigating their difficult roles in total harmony. DuFord slickly hides Howie’s deeply buried pain in a pleasant and caring facade, but when he finally explodes, the impact is gut-wrenching. And Kamoo impeccably rides her rollercoaster of emotions from start to finish.
All technical aspects of the production are fine, especially Brian Dambacher’s plush and spacious set. (The comprehensive design is what helps keep the scene breaks few and brief.)
(FOR “REVIEW BOX”)
Meadow Brook Theatre, on the campus of Oakland University, Rochester. Wed.-Sun., through Feb. 3. Tickets: $22-$38. For information: 248-377-3300 or http://www.mbtheatre.com.