Rabbit Hole at the Herberger Dumbs Down Death

I kept thinking about John Lennon as I watched Actors Theatre of Phoenix's Rabbit Hole the other night. Specifically, about how Paul McCartney was widely quoted as having said simply, "What a drag!" upon learning that his friend and former collaborator had died.

I was mindful of this because that same casual attitude prevailed among playwright David Lindsay-Abaire's people, who are recovering from the recent death of a 4-year-old family member in this play. The characters — at least as they were presented by this gifted but misdirected cast — all appear too glib for a family who've lost a child only eight months before. There were, on opening night, too many laughs from the audience, who appeared to believe they were watching a comedy about how people behave after a little boy is run over by a stranger.

There's some levity in Lindsay-Abaire's script, to be sure. But director David Ellenstein has punched up every comic line and seems to have asked his cast to play each scene as broadly as possible. The result is a stage crowded with good, solid performances that expertly smother the sadness in this complex story.

It's a shame, because there's a depth to this material that we don't see in this lighter, Lifetime movie version of a play that, after all, won the 2006 Pulitzer for drama. Ellenstein relies too often on his cast's wide comedic talents, or at least fails to rein them in. The result is an uneven story, one that asks us to laugh at, more often than sympathize with, the people who are recovering from a staggering loss.

Kerry McCue has the showiest role in Izzy, an ill-disciplined young woman who's fond of bar brawls and has just discovered she's pregnant with her new boyfriend's baby. McCue's big, bold performance is a joy to behold; even her reading of a simple line like, "Is it pie?" is oddly rewarding. Gene Ganssle, as the father of the dead boy, presents a plausible portrait of a man attempting to keep grief at bay. I've marveled in the past at Debra K. Stevens' talent for playing children and have been wowed by her occasional trips into dramatic adult roles. Here, she plays a woman easily 20 years older than herself with all the style and truth she's brought to kiddy roles. But it's Christiann Cosler, as the mother of the deceased, whose performance really rang true. Her comedy came not from quippy asides or a "let's get on with it" lightheartedness, but from the exasperated sarcasm of a woman who knows her suffering won't ever end.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela