Mad tea party

Healing and humor in Rabbit Hole
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  April 23, 2008
STRANGE CELEBRATION: A birthday party in mourning.

Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire | Directed by Brian P. Allen | Produced by the Good Theater | at the St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center, in Portland | through May 4 | 207.885.5883
Becca (Denise Poirier) is constantly concocting elaborate desserts for the people in her life. The care she puts into her meticulous crème caramel and layer cakes are, at the moment, the best she can offer of herself to husband Howie (Mark Rubin), sister Izzy (Kathleen Kimball), and mom Nat (Tootie Van Reenen). For months now, all of them have been grieving the death of Becca and Howie’s four-year-old son Danny, but they have different, often incompatible ways of giving and seeking comfort. The story of this family’s gradual realignment, and their gradual healing, is told in Rabbit Hole, the winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. David Lindsay-Abaire’s alternately harrowing and hilarious drama is powerfully produced by the Good Theater, under the direction of Brian P. Allen.

Complicating the grieving process for responsible, upper-middle class Becca is the news that bottle-blonde, leopard-print Izzy, notorious for scandal and excess, is now pregnant herself. The timing, as Izzy concedes, “sucks.” Plus, these two sisters are your classic sororal Odd Couple: They know and love each other intimately, but are about as opposite as dramatically possible. Izzy’s brassy Noo Yawk accent is glaring against her sister’s cultivated voice, and when they talk, their exchanges are chockablock with criticism — barely veiled (and sometimes stark naked) needling, judgements, and accusations about each other’s characters and behavior. Both the script and performances of Poirier and Kimball make the sisters’ tension acute and absolutely delectable. They are a total hoot. “I like how it oozes,” Izzy says of Becca’s perfect crème caramel. “Of course you do,” Becca replies, with just a dollop of subtext.

Becca and Howie, naturally, suffer from an even stronger tension, and are also far less available to each other as sources of comfort. They are completely out of synch in their respective grieving processes — Howie goes to group therapy, watches old home videos, and wants to keep Danny’s room intact; Becca quit therapy, keeps busy boxing things up, and wants to sell their now too-big house (Craig Robinson’s open set does a nicely understated job of suggesting their unflashy affluence and quiet good taste). Poirier and Rubin play off each other powerfully, and make their growing disconnection painfully tangible. Their characters’ individual arcs of grief, beautifully wrought by both actors, progress at different speeds and rates of change, never meeting in a common place, and their scenes together are hard on the heartstrings.

Luckily, all this misery is tempered by some exceptionally funny family comedy. Each woman of this family has a very sharp, and very different, comic sense: Becca is rather arch, Izzy brash and take-no-prisoners. And then there’s Nat. No-nonsense, simple, outrageous, and insufferable, especially once she’s had a few glasses, Mom rambles on in comic-relief tirades that any character actor would die for. What a pleasure for us that she’s in the hands of the wonderful Tootie Van Reenen, who’s heightened Nat’s outrageousness with a smart dead-pan and killer timing. Her extended treatise on the many Kennedys who have died in or escaped from airplanes (“The Kennedys are not cursed. They’re just really unlucky. And kind of stupid, a lot of them.”) is worth the price of admission. But she also does a marvelous, subtle job of balancing Nat’s intolerable qualities with ones that are matter-of-fact, wise, and empathetic.

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