by Hugh Hunter
“Rabbit Hole,” now running at Old Academy Players in East Falls, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007, as playwright David Lindsay-Abaire went off in a dramatically new direction. His previous works like “Fuddy Meers” and “Kimberly Akimbo” were playful and absurdist, where key characters are trapped inside unusual physical/medical conditions like amnesia and progeria. Their quirky encounters and self-images were similar to what one might see in fun house mirrors at the circus.
But “Rabbit Hole” is so deadly serious, you think you must have wandered into the wrong tent. It is the house of Becca and Howie in suburban New York, where their four-year-old son Danny died in a freak accident eight months before.
Danny hovers about like a ghost. You see his clothes, picture drawings and playthings everywhere. The plot is grim and spare. Yet director Christopher Wunder delivers a strong production by drawing on the talents of a fine cast.
Beverly Redman stars as Danny’s mother, Becca. There is no schmaltzy gesturing as Redman depicts an inconsolable woman with expressionless stares and the alternation of stony stillness and abrupt physical movement.
Bryan McVeigh makes a fine counterpoint as husband Howie. Though McVeigh is freer in his stage movement, there is an uneasiness in his manner that suggests Howie’s determination to break free of paralyzing grief is so much whistling in the dark.
Completing the household are Becca’s other relations, sister Izzy (Aly Brookland) and mother Nat (Dale Mezzacappa). Having more distance from the child’s death, they contribute much needed notes of humor. Otherwise, this play would be sad enough to send you into counseling.
The tragedy threatens to tear the marriage apart. Becca and Howie now live in separate worlds and just get in each other’s way. Every time one of them says something, it turns out to be the wrong thing to say.
Becca lies at the heart of the drama. Unlike Howie, she has stopped going to support groups, put off by religious pieties like “God just needed another angel.” (To which Becca replies, “Why didn’t God make his own angel? He can do anything.”)
Becca takes greater consolation in the 11th-hour appearance of Jason (Ryan Reed), the unlucky high school senior who drove the car that killed her son. For Danny, Jason wrote a children’s book, “Rabbit Hole,” that draws on a multi-universe theory to argue for immortality.
But it is Becca’s mother Nat who gives the most down-to-earth homily: Grief is something “you never get over … you learn how to carry it, like a brick in your pocket …”
You cannot talk away the death of a child. It is a challenge to all claims about the existence of a good and orderly universe. And yet Abaire’s likable characters edge towards redemption. Though short on entertainment – even plodding at times – “Rabbit Hole” is as honest as the rain.
Old Academy is located at 3540-44 Indian Queen Lane. “Rabbit Hole” will run through Jan. 27. Reservations at 215-843-1109.