Editor’s Note: This review contains plot spoilers
David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Rabbit Hole,” is an honest examination of the dynamics of bereavement. Despite its laugh-in-the-face-of-death brand of levity and its unceasing buffet of dessert dishes, it is famously not a feel-good play. In choosing “Rabbit Hole” to begin the 2023-2024 season, Thunder River Theater Company (TRTC) has signaled its intention to not just entertain its audience, but to challenge us.
The grief in question belongs primarily to Becca and Howie, played by Toddy Walters and Mark Millhone respectively. A married couple living out the apparent suburban dream in Upstate New York, Becca and Howie have been working through the loss of their only child for eight months, and are clearly still stumbling over their most basic wants and needs as they adjust to their new reality. Everyday acts like folding laundry or walking the dog are laden with emotional hazards. Even discussions of decades-old political conspiracy theories have the capacity to set them back.
Thankfully, Howie and Becca are not left to weather these storms alone. Becca’s mother, Nat, played by Libby Rife, has experience with grief as well, though her approach to doling out advice is far from tactful. Becca’s sister, Izzy, played by Brittany Crooke, lives a life chaotic enough to distract Becca from her own problems, albeit briefly. Off stage, Howie deals with his pain by attending group therapy sessions and playing squash.
To attempt to convey any more of the play’s central story along traditional lines of climactic crescendo and the subsequent fade into resolution would not only spoil the plot, but it would also miss the central point of the play: grief is not a linear, tidy process.
“There can and should be moments of hope and genuine connection between these characters,” writes David Lindsay-Abaire in his notes in the original script, “but I don’t ever want a moment (not even the very end) where the audience sighs and says, ‘Oh good, they’re gonna be okay now.’”
Missy Moore’s direction takes these words to heart. The result is an honest, delicate, frigid, hilarious performance from the cast. Toddy Walters plays Becca with a deep need to be pitied and comforted, and gains bravery with every scene. Mark Millhone plays Howie with a hunger to move on, to defeat grief and live something closer to a normal life. Though at times his acting is too subtle, Millhone’s Howie is decidedly human, and his palpable weariness in the final scene is the most truthful work of the entire play.
Brittany Cooke’s performance leans into the messiness of Izzy’s existence, but she is unafraid of the consequences. Her brash approach, when partnered with the energy of Libby Rife’s performance as Nat, breathes life into the play. Together, Izzy and Nat boldly speak truth to the power of sadness, emboldened by glasses of wine and orange juice.
Ricky Perez plays the surprising and somehow delightful role of Jason, whose part in the story serves to illustrate the particular oddity of grief that is caused by an accident. He is aware of the impact of his presence, but he is nonetheless determined to own his part in Becca and Howie’s loss.
Credit must also go to Set Designer Sean Jeffries, who dreamed up a set that ensures the tragedy of Becca and Howie’s loss remains visually present throughout the show. Technical Director Taylor Barr deserves plaudits for bringing Jeffries’s vision to life, and for building a set of kitchen cabinets worthy of a showroom floor. Props Designer Wayne Breyer’s never-ending array of desserts and Sara Malloy’s crafty costuming warranted a round of applause all on their own.
Ultimately, “Rabbit Hole” is not a step-by-step manual for how to grieve the loss of a life, but rather a glimpse into what grief can look like in white picket fence suburbia. For those among us who have lived through periods of grief, it will feel eerie, even familiar, but for those who have not, it may leave a sense of foreboding.
Regardless, TRTC must be applauded for choosing such a bold play to open their season, and for holding true to the playwright’s vision. The point is not to feel good. The point is to feel. Are we up to the challenge?