All the rest is Ibsen." That was Samuel Beckett's answer to questions about why there weren't more slice-of-life situations in his austere, abstract tragicomedies. Of course, he was hanging out in the existentialist cafés of Paris " a long way from Metairie, where Actor's Theatre of New Orleans is celebrating its third anniversary with an excellent production of David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Rabbit Hole.
The play is very much a slice-of-life drama " painfully so. It deals honestly with an almost unbearably painful loss in the lives of normal people. The script is nuanced and the writing skillful. It takes a while to realize quite what is going on. Not that you get lost in complications, but it takes a while to put the facts together from hints and comments before the horror of what this family is dealing with hits you. What is causing the tensions and quarrels that at first seem arbitrary becomes only too clear.
One tends to associate Actor's Theatre with comedy. This is partly because one of the founding members and driving forces behind the company is René J.F. Piazza, who is known for his 'The Whole Story" series, such as Dracula " The Whole Story and A Christmas Carol " The Whole Story, which has run every December for the last 15 years. Piazza often writes, directs and stars in these zany knockabouts.
Rabbit Hole shows us a husband and wife who have lost their 4-year-old son, Danny, in an automobile accident. Piazza plays the husband, Howie. He also directed and designed the set.
The set is meticulously realistic. The same can be said for the story and the dialogue. All this naturalness would be a waste if the acting did not convince. If we felt manipulated, we would pull back. But the acting all around is consistent with the script. We witness a seeming reality, and it is moving.
In a sense, it's the notorious invisible fourth wall " which has been in disrepute since at least the '60s " that accentuates the effectiveness of the play. Rabbit Hole shows the continuing power of conventional theater in the right hands.
At the start of the play, Becca (Chelle Ambrose) is folding children's clothing she has washed. She plans to give it to the Salvation Army. But after learning that her sister Izzy (Gina Abromson) has gotten pregnant (by a musician she's not married to), Becca offers the clothes to Izzy. A clue to Becca's tragedy is introduced in this understated way, for the clothes in question belonged to her dead son. Much of the play's effectiveness comes from this sort of camouflaged back story " from bank shots in a game of emotional billiards. Gradually, the whole story is laid out. We learn it bit by bit amid the tormented struggles of the characters.
The main conflict is between the husband and wife with their opposing attempts to accept the unacceptable. Essentially, Howie wants to keep as many reminders of his son around him as he can " the child's room, toys, videotapes of memorable moments. Becca wants to get rid of these burdensome memories. She has given away the boy's dog (which caused the fatal accident). She wants to sell the house. She even mistakenly erases one of the cherished home videos.
Ultimately, the play is not a tragedy. The play is the aftermath of a tragedy. Although this sounds awkward, it is one of the strengths of the script. All the performances are poised and even restrained given the explosive feelings they evoke. Rabbit Hole is a bold step forward for Actor's Theatre, and well worth the trip.