By Alan Nelson
The main event in Rabbit Hole – pretty much the only one of any significance – has already happened when the play opens. Danny, the son of upwardly mobile middle-class parents, Becca and Howie, has been killed in a tragic accident, running into the road after his pet dog, Taz. But this play is not about the unfortunate boy; it is about the survivors.
On the surface of it, that sounds like a pretty tough night out – a play that deals with such a profound bereavement doesn’t sound like an evening of light entertainment. That the play manages to be both thought-provoking and funny, as well as sad, and ultimately uplifting, is a credit to the skill of the author, who finds humour in the characters without ever trivialising the situation.
The entire action takes place in one location: the house the parents live in, which had been Danny’s home. Not much time passes. Nothing much happens; certainly there are no major events. The drama comes from the characters’ contrasting reaction to the terrible events that pre-empt the play. That all sounds like a kitchen sink drama – but that would be to suggest an altogether more dour tone.
Alternatively, with no one to blame for the terrible accident, and with the conspiracy of events that led up to Danny’s death leaving fate as the only villain, the play could be a Greek tragedy, but again the tone is at odds with that description.
The nature of the plot, and the way it follows the classic steps of mourning described in self-help manuals, is reminiscent of any soap opera or real-life tragi-doc. But it transcends these genres too, through the honesty, accuracy and humour of the script.
So, which is it to be? To my mind it is all three, and the author knows that. Nothing here is left to chance. The kitchen sink setting leads us to expect – to earnestly desire – a dramatic resolution that is not forthcoming. The Greek tragedy underlines the real possibility that these characters will never emerge from the dark place they find themselves in, and the soap opera shape emphasises the everyday likelihood of worlds being turned upside down. But together these mis-characterisations show the author playing with us. It is as if he is saying, “Don’t try to put this in a box and label it. These are terrible events that happen to real people and they deserve more than that.”
There are five of these real people:
At the centre is Becca, Danny’s mother. She is attempting to deal with her grief by removing all signs of Danny’s existence. She wants to give his clothes away and even suggests that they move house to avoid the painful memories. Alison Green’s Becca was a model of restraint, silent despair clearly apparent in every pragmatic move. For Alison this was another high point in a series of recent triumphs.
Becca’s husband and Danny’s father, Howie, chooses to process his grief in the most different of ways, immersing himself in all things Danny, watching and re-watching home videos of their time together. Andrew Newbon’s breezy manner contrasted beautifully with Alison Green’s frigidity, highlighted pointedly when she rejects his amorous advances as though deeply inappropriate. The two are locked in an intense rivalry of grief that neither seems able to escape. It is a neat irony that Becca’s pragmatism leaves her if anything less able to move on than Howie’s wallowing in the past.
Becca’s sister, Izzy, provides a counterpoint to the troubled couple. As the play opens she announces to Becca that she is pregnant. Becca regards her as unfit for motherhood – as insufficiently responsible – but what is really at play is Becca’s resentment that her carefree sister should be granted the opportunity that was snatched away from her. Jaimi Shanahan combined comedy and empathy to create in Izzy the ideal antidote to the stifling grief of Becca.
Becca’s mother, Nat, played with real style by Tricia Osborne-King, has grief of her own to deal with. Her son (and Becca’s brother) was a heroin addict who committed suicide. Her attempts to help Becca with lessons learnt through her own grief are rudely rebuffed by Becca, who refuses to accept any equivalence between the blameless death of her young son and the self-inflicted demise of her brother. Tricia Osborne King’s portrayal of Nat, funny but honest, blunt but caring, added lightness and perspective to alleviate the claustrophobia of the two central characters’ relationship.
Last but by no means least is Jason, the teenager who was driving the car that hit Danny. Jason has been closed out by Becca and Howie, and has no way of expurgating his sense of guilt. Joshua Williams-Ward created a highly believable and compelling Jason, and in his opening speech he provided one of the most powerful moments of the play.
These then, are the players. Their sorrow isolates them – from the world but more particularly from each other. Through their interaction, the play explores a series of major themes.
Grief pulls them apart and leaves them impotent to resolve their desperation. Minor events are to some extent the cause of resolution – Becca’s conversation with Jason, Howie’s realisation that he is on the verge crossing the Rubicon in a relationship with a woman he has met at a counselling group. But the real saviour is time.
Blame is nowhere and everywhere. While several characters insist that Danny’s death was a horrible accident, blame still hovers over proceedings. Becca blames herself for not keeping him safe; Izzy for making the phone call that distracted Becca from watching Danny. Howie left the gate to the fence unlocked, Jason drove the car, Nat’s fight with Izzy led to the phone call that distracted Becca, and even the banished pet dog, Taz, ran into the road. In fact, no one is to blame and the characters have nowhere to direct their terrible feelings. A lengthy discussion of the Kennedy clan, and whether they brought their own tragedy on themselves through hubris, ensures the audience don’t miss the point about tragedy.
The theme of motherhood is never far away. Becca clearly believes that Danny’s death is irrefutable proof that she was not good enough. She is equally convinced that if she wasn’t, then Izzy doesn’t even deserve the chance. Izzy’s view of motherhood as “the kind of thing that gives a person clarity”; as something purifying to be embraced; is at odds with Becca’s attempts to erase all remaining evidence of Danny’s existence. Nat offers a further case study of failed motherhood and highlights our inability to learn the lessons of our elders. Nat’s answer to Becca’s question about whether the pain ever goes away, offered one of many profound and memorable moments. It doesn’t – you just learn to live with it, to hold it close even.
But the theme that flowed through most strongly for me, and the one that made this production so much more than an analysis of grief, was hope. The play starts with no hope for Becca and Howie and ends with some. That is the journey they have come on. Towards the end of the run, BLT had a tweet retweeted by the author of the play himself, David Lindsay Abaire. It said this…
Becca: And then what?
Howie: I don’t know… something though.”
Ultimately the cast and director Andy Solts are to be congratulated for creating an evening that was deeply uplifting; not because of some grand resolution or because of a dramatic turn of events, but because it offered a realistic possibility of hope.