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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Rabbit Hole
Arden Theatre Company

Rabbit Hole
Grace Gonglewski and Brian Russell
Rabbit Hole is one of those plays that sounds like it might be unbearably depressing: It's about a suburban married couple whose four-year-old son died in a traffic accident, and we spend a couple hours watching them deal with the aftermath. What's astonishing is that Rabbit Hole never feels mawkish, morose or manipulative. Characters are fully fleshed out, veering between anguish, irritation and rage, yet each emotion feels authentic. And there's a welcome streak of wry humor that makes the characters even more relatable and realistic.

That sense of humor has served playwright David Lindsay-Abaire well in the past. His wacky comedies Fuddy Meers and Wonder of the World pile absurdity atop absurdity in a decidedly unrealistic manner. Rabbit Hole goes in the opposite direction, instead relying on the playwright's astute powers of observation. And he seems to get it all just about right: The friends who disappear for fear of saying the wrong word; the urge to blame and then deny that blame is taking place; the dialogue where what's unsaid reveals more than what's said. Despite occasional outbursts, Rabbit Hole is not a war of words between headstrong characters; it's more of a subtle, careful dance where everyone's trying to get to the same place in very different ways.

If there's a major fault in Rabbit Hole, it's that by the second half of the play, Lindsay-Abaire has little more to say about his characters; much of act two seems like a retread of act one. There's also a tantalizing plot development at the beginning of act two that gets squashed before it has a chance to get interesting. Fortunately, the playwright does move on by setting up an encounter between the family and the teenaged driver who accidentally took the boy's life. This allows the forlorn mother, Becca, to view an attempt at closure from another perspective, and thus come closer to closure herself.

James J. Christy's direction is admirably understated, allowing each cast member to be expressive in a different way. Grace Gonglewski is beautifully restrained and eminently believable as Becca, still trying to lead her family while bottling up her emotions as best she can. Brian Russell is excellent as her husband, who seems at first to be doing a better job coping with the tragedy, then lets go in an upsetting but dramatically satisfying way. Aaron Stall does a nice job conveying the nervousness of the teenaged driver, while Julianna Zinkel is a real sparkplug as Becca's kooky sister. Janis Dardaris shows off her good comic delivery as Becca's mother, although at times she seems to have wandered in from a production of Brighton Beach Memoirs.

In its portrait of two tightly wound (and wounded) parents who find they can't face a crisis alone, Rabbit Hole is uplifting and life affirming. Grief is a group effort, the play says, and the powerful honesty of the writing and the acting drive the point home.

Rabbit Hole runs through December 20, 2009 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $29 to $48 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheatre.org or in person at the box office.

Rabbit Hole
By David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by James J. Christy
Scenic Design... Donald Eastman
Costume Design... Allison Roberts
Lighting Design... James Leitner
Sound Designer and Composer... Jorge Cousineau
Stage Manger... Alec Ferrell

Cast:
Becca... Grace Gonglewski
Howie... Brian Russell
Izzy... Julianna Zinkel
Nat... Janis Dardaris
Jason... Aaron Stall


Photo: Mark Garvin


-- Tim Dunleavy



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