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Home / Articles / · Archive / Arts & Entertainment /  Grief Stricken
Arts & Entertainment

Grief Stricken

Frustrating performances blunt the emotional force of Rabbit Hole.

By Rob Tennant
Posted // June 11,2007 -

There were a few tears in Salt Lake Acting Company’s main theater the night I saw Rabbit Hole, but not from me. I saw where it was supposed to be heart wrenching, but I just didn’t buy it. The tale of a family dealing with the tragic death of a 4-year-old is obvious three-hankie fodder, but premise alone doesn’t cut it. You have to earn it.

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Unfortunately, it’s the writing more than the lead performances that carries the audience through the show’s most delicate scenes. The script by David Lindsay-Abaire avoids obvious pitfalls with consistent skill. There are no clichéd speeches accompanied by rending of garments or gnashing of teeth. Instead, we simply get Becca (Michelle Peterson) and Howie (Eric Robertson), a married couple coping with the same trauma'the loss of their young son Danny after he is hit by a car'in incompatible ways.

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It could be that Becca’s stiff demeanor results from paralysis by grief. It could also be argued that Howie’s erratic behavior, alternating between defensive sarcasm and attempted tenderness, stems from his confusion at the loss. But none of that works without an underlying chemistry and connection between the characters that the performances fail to deliver. It’s difficult to believe that these people love each other or ever did. Both Peterson and Robertson seem to be underplaying their roles against their instincts, with resulting flat performances in the place of revealing nuance. The audience is left to pick too much up from the text and fill in the emotional gaps on their own. Thankfully, the script is strong enough to facilitate exactly that.

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The production does get a lot right, however. The set design'by Keven Myhre, who also directed'captures upper-middle-class suburbia perfectly. There are stainless steel appliances in the kitchen next to the living room with its matching Microfiber couch and love seat set. All of little Danny’s photos and drawings have been put away, for “safekeeping,” Becca says. Everything is antiseptic, tidy and earth-toned in a way that evokes a couple with more money than imagination and a full run of the Pottery Barn.

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In stark contrast is the artifact of the child’s bedroom standing on a raised dais upstage, literally hanging over the events below. The toy bins are full, the wall covered with posters of primary-colored robots that are repeated on the sheets of his hospital-cornered bed. The room is ever-present yet rarely mentioned and even more rarely entered. Overall, the space they inhabit tells us more about these characters than the lead actors do.

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The supporting cast works well, though. Izzy (Colleen Baum), Becca’s wild-child sister, and Nat (Anne Cullimore Decker), the mother they try to keep away from the wine, are more than just comic relief. They both execute that function with welcome charm, but their real strengths come out in their more difficult exchanges. When Izzy has reason to believe Howie is having an affair, Baum manages to convey all the urgency, discomfort and even a little understanding of a concerned sister confronting her brother-in-law. Nat is callous and opinionated after a couple of drinks but shows visibly strained tact alongside frustration when helping Becca clean out Danny’s room in the second act. These moments bring the show an air of authenticity it is otherwise missing.

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In the end, all the working elements of Rabbit Hole together are not quite enough to give the show the power it needs to be effective. You want to empathize with this bereaved couple; they just never give you the chance. You want to care that they work it out and get on track, but it doesn’t end up mattering. You want this script to come to life with all its potential intact, but after a frustrating interpretation of the two most crucial characters, it’s probably a better read.

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RABBIT HOLE
Salt Lake Acting Company
168 W. 500 North
Through Oct. 8
363-7522

 
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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