Over the past decade, David Lindsay-Abaire has distinguished himself as one of the American theater's most original, insightful, and satisfying playwrights. Like Angels in America author Tony Kushner, he understands that realism is best suited to television and film and theaters do their best work when they give over to intrinsically theatrical conventions, which free the audience's imagination and turn the live medium's weaknesses into strengths.
Inspired by absurdist writers such as Eugene Ionesco and screwball filmmakers such as Preston Sturgis, Lindsay-Abaire has excelled at black comedy. Plays like Fuddy Meers and Kimberly Akimbo hold a fun-house mirror up to nature, finding truths in every distortion and laughter amid the tears. His characters often suffer from extreme mental or physical disorders that result in farcical horror shows and epic quests to reclaim their true identities. So what went wrong with Lindsay-Abaire's 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Rabbit Hole? All the author's inventive wordplay and effortless poetry are gone, as is most of his celebrated whimsy. What's left is a bleak story, bleakly told, and if you're a weeper, tissues are strongly advised.
Anyone who knows Lindsay-Abaire's history of wrenching logic from illogic might assume that Rabbit Hole pays homage to Lewis Carroll. That would certainly be a good guess but incorrect.
The drama, strongly acted at Circuit Playhouse, focuses on the life of Howie and Becca, two successful suburbanites who were living in a beige American paradise until their young son was accidentally killed when he chased the family dog into the street. Now the couple is living in a beige suburban hell, desperately searching for a means of escape. All the usual suspects are on display: denial, anger, blame games. Although the playwright stops short of self-help advocacy, his plot points might have been taken from any book about grief management. His story rings true from start to finish, but it also unfolds as predictably as a made-for-television movie.
Director Dave Landis has been on a roll of late, turning in stunning productions of The Wild Party and Kushner's undersung musical Caroline, or Change. By any standard, his work on Rabbit Hole is no less impressive. Kim Justis Eikner and Michael Gravois, two of Memphis' most celebrated performers, turn in a pair of quietly explosive performances as Becca and Howie. As Becca's mother, Irene Crist shows the same balance of flinty determination and vulnerability that has made her a regular fixture on the Playhouse stage. Teenage actor Ed Porter charms and chills as the young man who may or may not have been going a little over the speed limit when he tragically swerved to avoid hitting a dog. Only Sheana Tobey comes up short in her too-grounded portrayal of Izzy, Becca's irresponsible sister who has just found out she's pregnant.
Each character's grief prevents them from recognizing their own selfishness, and the selfishness prevents them from dealing with the grief.
"Does [the hurting] ever go away?" Becca asks. Unsurprisingly, the answer is no. The grief, we are told, changes. It becomes a kind of surrogate for the missing loved one and something of a comfort.
It is probably unfair to write Rabbit Hole off as a simple domestic tragedy. Even amid all the claptrap, Lindsay-Abaire is better than that. He measures his silences like a Pinter or a Mamet, and in the end, Rabbit Hole probably has less to do with grief than with the many roadblocks — real and artificial — that prevent us from communicating with one another. It's a play without easily identified heroes and villains and where no good intention goes unpunished. But all of these masterful subtleties are lost in the silence, the shouting, and the constant reminder that a child is dead and nobody can be blamed.
Of course, Rabbit Hole did win Lindsay-Abaire his Pulitzer. And there are reasons why TV networks make so many unoriginal movies about people surviving all manner of domestic crises. People do relate to these stories, no matter how maudlin or self-indulgent. As a culture, it would seem, we like to pull out the hankies and bawl. To that end, Rabbit Hole delivers. And it's probably unfair to expect even an inventive writer to be inventive at every turn.