Play Review: Rabbit Hole at Stage 55
Play Review: Rabbit Hole at Stage 55
Director: Stacie Stocker
Actors: Colleen Hartnett, Shellie Ulrich, Michael Hanelin, Jane Fendelman and Michael Coleman
Reviewed by Hal C F Astell
This is something completely new for me, so my apologies to director Stacie Stocker in advance. I don't believe I've ever reviewed a play before, though I have been involved with the odd production here and there so I know a little about how the cogs move. I've worked lights and sound effects and I've wrangled children, though I should emphasise that nothing I've been involved with has even remotely approached professional. My crowning achievement on stage was as the delivery man in a village production of The Importance of Being Earnest, which gave me a single line. I learned that I'm no actor; I'm much better in pantomime where the requirements are merely that I can stand up in front of an audience and make an idiot out of myself. That I can do! I have at least seen a few plays mounted by people who actually know what they're doing, most recently the Desert Rose Theatre production of The Portrait of Dorian Gray in Mesa and A Christmas Carol at Glendale's Theater Works. I've never seen anything like this though.
Rabbit Hole is a modern play which won writer David Lindsay-Abaire the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was premiered in New York in 2006 and picked up one Tony from five nominations. Clearly it's a substantial work, though I hadn't realised that when I showed up at Stage 55 in downtown Phoenix to see the first dress rehearsal without having done a single bit of research beforehand. All I knew was that this was an opportunity to see a host of actors that I knew well from film doing their thing on stage for a change. I soon discovered that there's another connection between them; every member of the cast and crew is either a graduate of the local Meisner acting program run by Kevin Phipps, director of Malediction and the upcoming Grief, or are due to graduate from it next year. In fact, the spark for this production was lit when two members of the cast, Colleen Hartnett and Michael Hanelin, performed a scene from it as part of their graduation. It seemed like a good idea to perform the whole play to an audience.
And I'm very happy they did. As perhaps my introduction to modern drama, it's a particularly powerful one. I noticed quite a lot. For a start, the cast perform as if the audience wasn't there, so that we're voyeurs into a household unable to see us back. There are no soliloquys or outright breaking of the fourth wall and only a rare scene, such as the one that prompted the first audience tears on the last night, has the actor even looking in the direction of the audience. The cast is a small one, only reaching five players in a two hour play, but each gets their shot and each of them takes it. It was fascinating to see the focus shift between the characters and for the actors to grasp the opportunities given them with both hands. There's also a clever growth to the play, as the key information we have to work with is dished out with patience, each scene literally adding a new revelation or major plot progression to the piece. Initially we have nothing; just a couple of young ladies talking to each other.
They're a pair of sisters, Izzy and Becca and, while it's Izzy who's more obvious in this scene, the play itself is much more about Becca. The transition comes when we realise why Izzy's news, delivered in a roundabout fashion, is so awkward. She's pregnant, unexpectedly but happily, but she can't just come out and say so as the subject is a touchy one. It's taken her nine weeks to get around to it, for Becca apparently doesn't have her own child any more; while we're learning this, she's folding little Danny's clothes up to give to Goodwill. The second scene explains that he's dead and has been for eight months. Later scenes answer all the little questions about how, while the play itself focuses around an attempt at an answer to the big question of why. It was a tragic accident that wasn't anybody's fault, but that doesn't stop Danny's parents from beating themselves up over it, as they've been doing since the very moment it happened. The fact that Howie, Danny's dad, works in risk management, is a supreme irony.
Colleen Hartnett is a revelation as Becca, who is really the central character of the piece. Everything we see unfolds at her house and she's rarely not in it, as she doesn't have the luxury of escaping it to work. Danny, of course, is there throughout too; while we don't see him, it's clear that Becca does continually, through a thousand memories and the unbreakable bond of a mother's love. Other characters do steal the focus from them on occasion, but even then Becca's usually in the scene as well. That happens first with Izzy, who dominates the beginning. Shellie Ulrich is the cast member I knew the least, having only reviewed her in The Neighbors, an IFP challenge film from earlier this year directed by another Meisner graduate, Tommy Schaeffer. Ulrich is sassy and full of life as Izzy, the wild child of the family; she leads us safely into this story of heartbreak with well timed humour. Of course, that's not merely to benefit us, it's also to soften the blow to Becca as she finally gets round to children.
Becca is very sensitive, understandably so. She's a strong woman but one who probably doesn't believe that, as she struggles daily with the omnipresent ghost of her son, half trying to find a way to move on from the moment at which her son died and her life effectively stopped. Every actor delivered here, but Hartnett had the most crucial role because, if she hadn't delivered, the play would have lost its impact completely and nobody else would have been able to save it; Becca is very much the grounding for the entire play, the character in which all the others are rooted. It's therefore good news that Hartnett was astounding in a performance that makes me look forward even more to her central role in Grief, due in January. She's a bundle of contradictions, all fleshed out believably. She's calm but reactionary, caring but absorbed in her own loss, a loving soul who's finding it difficult to love. Like the rest of the cast, she was powerful at the dress rehearsal but better still during the Saturday night show.
Unsurprisingly to anyone who's been reading my monthly reviews of Running Wild films, her husband Howie is played by Michael Hanelin. As a frequent screen couple, they've hardly had a great time of it. In a succession of films they've hinted at getting together, maybe got together, failed to get together. Here they're married, as they were in The Men Who Robbed the Bank, but their relationship is broken even further. Because of how Howie grieves ('you're not in a worse place, you're in a different place,' Becca tells him), Hanelin is notably subdued for most of the first half of the play. He plays a solo scene silently and without much movement; in dialogue he's quieter than everyone else, as if Howie wants to fade into the background. Yet, he gets his moment to erupt soon before the intermission and he erupts magnificently; not wanting to hurt Becca but unable to hold his tongue any longer. Hartnett responds just as magnificently and this astounding scene makes the play.
In between the respective moments for Izzy and Howie to dominate, we're introduced to Nat and Jason, the other two cast members. Becca's mother Nat is played with gusto by Jane Fendelman, stealing her first scene ruthlessly and unashamedly with a meandering diatribe about the curse of the Kennedys. It begins with Aristotle Onassis, as great stories often do; he groped my aunt once and she's just made it out of hospital, but the two incidents weren't related. That's the sort of story that Nat tells, always with a hidden reason, because she's the sort of mother who steals scenes even in private. That she's clearly tipsy to boot merely gives Fendelman even more opportunity to nail the part. As Jason, the high school student who was the inadvertent agent for Danny's death, Michael Coleman is too old for the part, but otherwise spot on. He stepped up most from the rehearsal and called tears right out of the audience in a powerful recitation of a letter. His pauses are perfect and pauses are frickin' tough.
There's a lot here to delve into as the characters attempt to overcome their loss, most obviously in the way religion and science help different people differently, and that makes it all the sadder that Rabbit Hole ran for only three nights at Stage 55. The rehearsal was powerful, but the last night's production was a clear step up for all involved, as they settled more substantially into the skin of their characters. The show was a major success, every seat filled and every audience member affected, but I wonder if this troupe would have got better yet during another week of performances. As Meisner trained actors, I'd have expected that stage work would be a gimme for them, but they continue to make films instead. I'm happy for that, as I can return to them any time, relive the moments captured on screen and watch the progressions, but stage is a fleeting medium, as highlighted to me with two performances over five nights. I hope I get an opportunity to experience some of those fleeting stage moments again.
PS: any stereotypically starving actor should beg to get into the cast of a Rabbit Hole production; you'll never want for food, even if you only get to eat on stage. I left each performance hungry.
Photo Credits: The photos are (c) Dee Astell; Poster (c) Kevin R Phipps and Shannon-Jenan Dia.
Hal C F Astell writes reviews of films from the 1900s to the 2010s at Apocalypse Later, with a focus on what most critics don't cover. He is the author of two books, Huh? An A-Z of Why Classic American Bad Movies Were Made and Velvet Glove Cast in Iron: The Films of Tura Satana. Both are available at Amazon.