Though he is a prolific and decorated playwright — known for a variety of work — David Lindsay-Abaire is arguably at the top of his craft with his play Rabbit Hole. A beautiful tale of a family’s loss of a child, it is getting a lovely, thoughtful take by director Dina Shadwell at Stage Door Players, running through December 7 at the Dunwoody-based theater.
Grief hangs thick over the lives of Becca (Mary Saville) and Howie (Matthew Myers), a New York couple in their late thirties who are dealing with the death of their four-year-old son Danny, who was struck by a car and killed. Eight months later they are still coping and trying to move forward. Both are having a hard time, especially Becca, who has tried support groups and found them unhelpful.
Becca’s unwed sister Izzy (Cara Mantella) is a bit reckless, recounting a physical altercation she had at a bar recently as the play opens, while her mother Nat (Patricia French) has had to deal with her own loss. At times, Becca doesn’t know how to react to them, or Howie. She has been contacted by Jason Willette (Chase Alford), the young teenager who drove the car that hit Danny. And one afternoon, he decides to show up. Although she is the angrier one between she and Howie, it’s she who is more receptive to him.
Lindsay-Abaire received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for this play, which is especially adept about issues of loss and forgiveness. It’s sad without being sentimental, with some welcome droll moments — most notably in the characters of Nat and Izzy — and finds hope at a time when that is difficult.
It’s also a showcase for its performers. The cast is uniformly strong here. The women may have the plum roles in the play, but Myers and Alford still make impressions. Howie is a patient father grieving just as much as his wife, and Myers creates pathos trying to reach out to Becca. He and Saville have an argument when a remnant of Danny seems lost forever that is both searing and sad. The character of Jason, too, isn’t one-note. He is not some careless teen; the playwright has made him a young man struggling in his own right with his own conscience, and Alford brings that out.
But the women do dazzle. French is one of the most animated actresses in local theaters, and she hasn’t been this memorable in a role in a while. She nags a bit, brings up things that shouldn’t be discussed, yet is ultimately a great mother, there to console and listen to Becca. Mantella brings her typical charisma to Izzy. The character may be young, and not really sure of where she is headed, but she isn’t aimless. She is loyal and exceptionally devoted to her family.
On Broadway, Cynthia Nixon won a well-deserved Tony Award for the role of Becca, and Nicole Kidman picked up an Academy Award nomination for the underrated 2010 film version. Saville’s take is a little more internal; it’s quite effective, though at times the character seems a little too in control, not shaken enough. Yet grief — as Becca explains to Howie — is carried differently within people. What the actress does a great job of presenting is a mostly unflappable exterior while withering inside.
As a director, Shadwell completely understands this. It’s a play that is quiet much of the time; what the characters aren’t saying can be as important as what they are. She doesn’t rush it. Scenes play out naturally and unforced. The family members work together with a shorthand that seems unstaged. Shadwell creates some wonderful moments — Becca and Nat deciding what toys are staying and which are leaving; Becca trying to hold in her emotions as she talks to Jason.
Rabbit Hole — named after an element of a story Jason has written — is certainly one of the best acted shows of the new theater season, a triumph for Stage Door Players and its cast and crew.