Review: Falling into "Rabbit Hole"

SU's Black Box Players portray a grieving family.

The sound of little boy’s voice, calling to his father over the barks of his dog should be one of the most beautiful sounds in the world. In “Rabbit Hole,” produced by Syracuse’s Black Box Players, it’s the saddest. The story of a family grieving over the loss of its youngest member – the four-year-old Danny – David Lindsay-Abaire’s play burrows beneath the sorrow admitted in polite company to the messy anguish that causes discord between spouses, siblings and friends.

“Rabbit Hole” has a small cast, but each actor carries a piece of the show’s emotional burden. Danny’s father Howie, played with control by Matthew Tolstoy, deals with his grief first by trying to be understanding with his wife Becca and attending group counseling. Tolstoy’s initial choice to use Howie’s humor and positivity seems strange at first – a father who has recently lost a son should seem far more upset. But, when his anger flares, it’s all the more effective. His careful smiles and joking side comments are exposed as a mask covering a deep sadness. Tolstoy’s real tears are further convincing.

Jessica Bues’s lonely Becca hides her emotions less well. Her character sets up the play’s major theme, asking again and again who determines how one should deal with grief – Your spouse? Your friend? Your mother? Yourself? Bues doesn’t let her character’s moments of anger define her, though the script gives ample opportunity for that to happen. Instead, she infuses that anger with other layers visible to the audience – she may resent Howie, but she looks at him with love at the beginning; she may wish her sister, the sassy Emily Robinson, would get her act together, but she is genuinely upset when she realizes the birthday gift she chose wasn’t the best she could have.

Lindsay-Abaire’s excellent script can be credited with some character depth, too. The dialogue is believable and modern, especially the teen-speak of Charlo Kirk’s Jason. Izzy swears a lot, but it never feels excessive. Nat, a convincingly middle-aged Rachel Baker, exudes motherisms from her love for the Kennedys to her nagging. Baker’s Nat stood out with one mannerism – taking off her heels, baring nude-stocking feet – that seemed so natural. The action added another dimension to her, a realistic moment my own mother might do.

“Rabbit Hole’s” performance value is high for a student-acted production, and surprisingly high for a production that also is student directed. The costumes, mostly modern clothing, signified the differences in characters as well as clothed them – Becca wore oxford blouses and sweaters in contrast to Izzy’s leggings and bright pink vest. But it was the absence of a particular character inside his clothes, which Becca folds at the beginning of the show, which reveals the production’s most emotional aspect: Danny. The little boy is to the audience what he is to his parents now: a small pair of shorts, a toy dinosaur, a voice on a videotape. We can almost imagine him running around just off stage as little boys do. The Black Box Players approach his absence directly, considering actual grief rather than the overblown anger of parody or the delicacy of a neighbor bringing a casserole by after the funeral. And staring grief in the face is devastating, but as Nat says, it becomes bearable.


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