You probably shouldn’t go see a play about parents coping with the death of their four year-old child the night before your own first child is born. But, by chance, that’s exactly what I did.
Rabbithole focuses on an upper middle class couple Becca and Howie who have recently lost their young son Danny to a freak car accident. Becca, played by Lia D. Mortensen uses denial as her method of therapy, while her husband Howie played by Daniel Cantor, grasps at every last memory of their son. The play examines the tension between the couple, as well as the fact that Becca’s, irresponsible somewhat alternative sister Izzy (Amy Warren) is pregnant, a poignant reminder of Becca’s recent loss. Complicating matters is Becca’s mom, Nat (Mary Ann Thebus), a woman who doesn’t filter her thoughts or feelings, and who once lost her own child in an untimely death.
Sometimes plays examining the aftermath of death easily fall prey to maudlin sentimentality and over-acted soliloquies on existence and pain. Rabbithole only skirts that edge in the emotional climaxes of the play. Most of the time, David Lindsay-Abaire’s dialogue is an empathetic realistic exploration of the relationship dynamics between mother and daughter, sister and sister, and ultimately wife and husband, and what it takes to survive a tragedy.
Performances from the entire cast are extraordinary. Mortensen’s turn as Becca humanizes what might be characterized as an otherwise uptight North Shore mom. Cantor, as Howie, also does a good job of restraining what could be over the top moments of anger in a lesser actor. Warren’s Izzy, the punky pregnant sister is the perfect lighter counterpoint.
Lately, I’ve been covering a lot of small theatre troupes, which usually mean intimate storefront theatres with seating in the round or at the edges of the stage with the audience almost spilling in to the production. I’ve found myself reveling in that intimacy, but watching Rabbithole at the Goodman I was reminded of how a good separation between the audience and the play sometimes improves thing. Having the entire audience in front of the stage recaptures a feeling of being at the cinema, which while artificial, actual feels more real, because my generation’s been reared on movies.
Likewise small theatre troupes also mean small budgets and sets built on a shoestring. Goodman’s a bit deeper in the pockets, and the Rabbithole set design of Scott Bradley which includes a real plasma TV, refrigerator, stainless steel oven hood, and working plumbing (there’s a faucet running in one scene) was lifelike. The only deviations from reality are the odd angular sweepings of the living room and bedroom walls that ape and add to the dramatic tension within the play.
Ultimately Rabbithole while tragic, is also comedic, smart, and entertaining, and therefore the perfect distraction from my own nervous journey to parenthood.
Rabbithole is playing at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, through April 15th. Tickets can be purchased online at goodmantheatre.org or by phoning 312-443-3800.
This article first appeared on centerstagechicago.com