January 26, 2007

Concern for characters a challenge
by David Ollington

The Unicorn Theatre opened The Rabbit Hole last weekend. Writer David Lindsay-Abaire’s play offers a professional, regional theatre a safe gamble. The pathos remains comfortably upper-middle class. Caucasian discomfort evokes the occasional humor. The choice and production of this piece took little risk. They land an effective, sickeningly bland, competent, bourgeois, theatrical Wonder Bread.

Joe Mayers (Jason) and Cynthia Hyer (Becca) in Unicorn Theatre’s production of Rabbit Hole. (photo by Cynthia Levin and courtesy of Unicorn Theater)

Lindsay-Abaire labors us through a family’s grief process. The Corbetts, Becca (Cynthia Hyer) and Howie (Larry Greer) lost their little boy, Danny, who died in a tragic automobile accident. We get to witness the interpersonal conflict, avoidance of feeling and rocky decision-making the family does thereafter.

Becca’s sister Izzy (Katie Gilchrist) distractedly chats with Becca, revealing both that she got into a recent physical altercation with a stranger and that she’s pregnant. Izzy’s flaky venting taps on Becca’s sore spot, the loss of her son, and Becca yells at her sister, “You’re not allowed to use him to justify your own shit.”

Howie attends a grief support group. Becca won’t go. Becca refuses his amorous advances. “It’s been almost eight months!” he insists. “Things just aren’t nice anymore,” she retorts. Becca’s mother Nat, played by Kathleen Warfel (well-cast), compares Danny’s death to the death of Becca’s brother Arthur, a heroin addict who died at 30 years of age. The analogy infuriates Becca.

Becca goes through Danny’s clothes and toys and she boxes up photographs of him. Accidentally, she records over a videotape of him. “You’ve got to stop erasing him!” Howie cries.

The accident happened when Danny ran into the street chasing the family dog. Nat, therefore, has taken the dog to live with her. “I want the dog back. Your mother’s making him fat,” Howie demands.

They decide to sell their house, to move away from the memories. Danny’s space sheets and toys remain on display in his room, and the Corbetts soon learn to put away his things because potential buyers continually see Danny’s room and ask about the little boy, making the sale process more painful.

A talented, young discovery, Joe Mayers, plays Jason, the guilt-ridden teenager who drove the fateful car. Jason makes respectful requests to speak with the family, finally walking into their home during their open house. Becca wants to hear him out. Howie wants him gone. Jason presents Becca with a science fiction story he’s written about doorways in the time/space continuum, “rabbit holes” into alternate realities.

Jason dedicates the story to Danny and hopes to provide comfort with the theory that in some alternate dimension, Danny lives. “That’s a nice thought. That somewhere out there, I’m having a good time,” Becca reacts.

Granted, the loss of a child is deeply tragic and painful. Lindsay-Abaire’s script, however, focuses on the trivia in the family’s life, the detail upon which they obsess while dodging the real issues of their grief. This provides humor but wears thin, especially given the interminable pauses director Theodore Swetz imposed upon the action. The actors fill the pauses with a workmanlike theatrical tension, but the tedious rhythm of the evening coupled with the evasive, vacant subject matter becomes tortuous.

The characters’ miscommunications ignite cyclical disagreement. One phrase repeats throughout, “I’m just saying,” as they attempt to clarify their misunderstood intentions. Did Lindsay-Abaire deliberately use this as a recurrent motif or is it a literary crutch?

The play clumsily and abruptly ties up the loose ends of the plot with a bafflingly easy-answer ending.

The action occurs in the affluent New York suburb Larchmont. The play strikingly resembles the 1980 Mary Tyler Moore/Donald Sutherland film Ordinary People, financial comfort with dysfunctional grief equals bad interpersonal relationships. The self-awareness of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s made this tender film timely. An era of a questionable war, a volatile environment and political polarity makes concern for this Rabbit Hole family a challenge.

What about a play that confronts darker contemporary issues? The New Orleans aftermath of Katrina? The domestic impact of the Iraq war? Darfur? How about the Unicorn reviving the gripping Top Dog/Underdog with its sobering, poetic look at poverty and racism?

Greer and Hyer do their best, despite the maddening pauses and the questionable material. They, however, seem old for the roles. Danny died at four years old, and the difficulties of a younger couple going through such harshness could elicit more sympathy. Gilchrist appears a good ten years younger than Hyer, and if the two sisters seemed closer in age, the stakes of their sibling rivalry might rise.

Some production aspects warrant mention. Atif Rome designed a set with a revolving stage, and the Unicorn Theatre realized the design effectively. It moves efficiently and quietly. Margaret Spare lit the stage with sensitivity, slowly and subtly intensifying the light in order to reflect the escalating disagreements and including tender, compassionate fades.

The Rabbit Hole runs until Feb. 11 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. Call 816-531-PLAY or visit There will be post-show discussions Jan. 28 and Jan. 30.

David Ollington can be contacted at


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