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Mothers and Daughters

Familiar family-tragedy plot bolstered by strong performances

Deborah Hazlett (left) and Chris Block celebrate with Megan Anderson.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 9/30/2009

Rabbit Hole

By David Lindsay-Abaire

Through Oct. 11 at Everyman Theatre

As Becca and her younger sister Izzy banter and bicker in Becca's modern suburban kitchen during the opening scene of Rabbit Hole, they're obviously avoiding a sensitive subject. They talk around it but won't mention it. playwright David Lindsay-Abaire is cagey about the secret, but most theatergoers will sniff out the answer long before the playwright reveals it: Becca is still recovering from the death of her young son.

The secret's easy to guess not because Lindsay-Abaire drops too many hints but because the dialogue smells like those earnest, middle-brow "family problem" movies directed by Robert Redford or Robert Benton. We know the formula before it unfolds: The parents suffer in ways both painful and wryly funny before finding a way to heal. And that's just what happens.

Lindsay-Abaire is a skillful writer (he's already been hired to adapt Rabbit Hole as a Nicole Kidman movie), and he expertly delivers both the winces and the laughs. But unlike other American playwrights who also deal with "family problem" plays--Paula Vogel or Donald Margulies, for example--Lindsay-Abaire never catches you off guard, never surprises you with a new epiphany. He covers the familiar ground very well, but it's familiar ground just the same.

On the other hand, Everyman's production of Rabbit Hole is blessed with three of the best actresses in Maryland today: Deborah Hazlett as Becca, Megan Anderson as Izzy, and Rosemary Knower as their tactless, firecracker mother Nat. They find epiphanies in the spaces between their lines.

When Anderson's Izzy, a twentysomething single woman in a hoodie, tries to explain why punching out her boy friend's ex-girl friend in a bar the night before does not qualify as a "bar fight," you want to believe her. And when she exclaims that her unplanned pregnancy with the musician in question will be good for her, you want to believe that as well. Anderson is so bright-eyed, so bubbly in her girlish storytelling, so unscarred by all her mistakes that you can buy her optimism.

Hazlett's Becca, by contrast, seems deeply wounded. Even if you didn't understand English, you could tell from the chopped-off red hair, the tightly crossed arms and the reflexive look away from whoever's talking to her that this woman is nursing a grudge against the world. When she spurns even the boyish attempt at seduction--red wine, dim lights, and Al Green--by her husband Howie (Chris Bloch), you can almost taste the bitterness emanating from her pores.

Knower's Nat, a short, stocky woman with a wild tangle of hair and loud flowery skirts, appears oblivious to her daughters' needs. She takes over Izzy's birthday party, for example, with a long-winded spiel about the so-called Kennedy Family curse that caused so many of their children to die, perhaps not the best topic for the home of grieving parents. Howie, Izzy, and Becca all try to change the subject, but Nat plows onward. When her daughters blow up in anger, Nat is mystified: "What? I can't talk about politics?"

When Jason, the teenage driver who ran over Becca's son, shows up to seek some kind of reconciliation, the scene wilts in comparison to the fireworks between Nat and her daughters. Troy Jennings, an acting student at Towson University, does his best with the role, but Lindsay-Abaire has made Jason such a bland goody-goody that there's no hope. If that's supposed to be the catalyst for Becca's recovery, it's entirely unconvincing.

Much more interesting is the scene after Howie's failed seduction attempt. Becca goes up to bed, while Howie sulks on the sofa. He listens for quiet from the bedroom, then digs around in a pile of videotapes and pushes one into the VCR player. You expect it to be pornography, but it's not. It's a home movie of his son, and the mix of happiness and sadness in Howie's face tells us more than pages of dialogue have. In this house of death, memory is a secret, forbidden pleasure.

Rabbit Hole is a more naturalistic play than Lindsay-Abaire's Kimberly Akimbo, the fantasia that played at the Vagabond Players last year. In both cases, though, the playwright seems more interested in pleasing audiences than in challenging them. It's up to the performers to dig a little deeper, and under Vincent Lancisi's focused direction, Hazlett, Anderson, Knower, and Bloch do just that. The show's best moments come not from the dialogue but from certain gestures, certain looks on their faces.

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