Rabbit Hole (Ad Astra)
March 24 – April 9
While children’s books and puzzles feature among the everyday items of the New York State home of Becca and Howie Corbett, when we drop in on their story, it is to see Becca (Janelle Bailey) packing up children’s clothes. As her sassy sister Izzy (Vanessa Moltzen) retells the story of a recent night out, we learn just as much about Becca as we do the storyteller. As the pair bounce off each in easy conveyance of their sibling dynamic, it is clear that Becca is probably the older more responsible, sensible and settled of the pair. What also is soon apparent, is that this is a family that has nearly been ripped apart due to a months-earlier tragedy.
Becca and her husband Howie (Stephen Hirst) are grieving their four-year-old son Danny, who was run over by a car outside their home while chasing after the family dog. The story follows the couple’s navigation of the initial phases of life without their son, searching for what is still possible in an everyday existence after such unimaginable pain. Both are in different places with their anger and sadness, making it difficult for them to connect. And while Becca busies herself with baking and trying not to concentrate on the recollections all around her, due to the distress the comes with the familiar, Howie finds comfort in trying to maintain the memories by watching home videos. Cracks of responsibility and recrimination soon begin to appear in the relationship as Howie bonds with a member of a grief therapy group and Becca reaches out to the teenage boy responsible for the tragedy (Fraser Anderson).
At almost 2.5 hours (including interval) “Rabbit Hole” is long, but it is good… very good. The study of grief written by David Lindsay-Abaire was the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007. Lindsay-Abaire’s cohesive script is well-written, full of naturalistic dialogue and dramatic intensity. And Mikayla Hosking’s restrained direction builds upon this with an approach that is characterised by quiet moments to add to character introspection and emotional tension, which ultimately makes its experience more moving than depressing.
While character accents may be initially jarring, things soon settle into realisation that there are no weak links in this production. Moltzen quickly moves Izzy on from what could have been an abrasive caricature, while Bailey and Hirst each give powerful performances, particularly when an accidental loss of memories leads to an honest discussion of their different ways of dealing with grief. And in his brief appearances, Anderson gives an equally moving performance, enlivening Becca’s read aloud of his initial apology letter with meaningful use of pace, pause and emotive emphasis, which aides in laying bare the story’s moving brutality. Given the complexity surrounding the tragic emotions being explored, there are also appreciated moments of respite, including through the humour of Becca’s mother, Nat’s (Julia Johnson) obsession with the Kennedy curse during birthday party conversation.
Staging, sound and lighting are simplistic almost to the point of being subdued, which grounds the story and compliments its realism roots. After interval, when the kitchen calendar has moved from March to May, stage dressing disappears as the couple attempts to move on. Diligent direction from Hosking shows how little details do matter, as characters eat the food that is prepared and the pages of a Becca recipe shared with her sister indeed include instruction as to how to make the lemon slice in question.
“Rabbit Hole” is compelling, well-performed drama. The play represents a powerful portrait of a family experiencing the most heartbreaking of griefs and through this, an exploration of what it is to be human, with an intensity heightened by Ad Astra’s intimate traverse staging. While some momentum is lost in Act Two, its concluding moments bring things to a satisfactory finish. Indeed, the honesty of Hirst’s final ‘where to now’ monologue leaves a lasting legacy, punctuating the play with an offer of hope.