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Review: 'Rabbit Hole'

Palo Alto Players find humor and honesty in a family tragedy

DISTRACTION is an effective tool in the hands of playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, whose 2007 Pulitzer Prize–winning Rabbit Hole is now playing at the Lucie Stern Theater. As the Palo Alto Players production opens, we are introduced to a tornado of talk named Izzy (Kate McGrath), who is regaling her sister, Becca (Shannon Warrick), with the story of her recent bar fight. We cannot help but be captivated by McGrath’s high-energy portrayal of this high-strung young woman, who has a terrific sense of humor (the play is often very funny when Izzy is onstage) and the metabolism of a hummingbird (though slender, Izzy eats almost constantly). Unfortunately, Izzy is no match for the circumstances that life hurls at her—in addition to the tussle in the bar, she’s just lost her job and has gone and gotten herself pregnant.

Lindsay-Abaire takes great pains to get all of Izzy’s details right, which is why, at first, we don’t fully register the minutiae of the laundry Becca is sorting as her kid sister chatters on. Soon enough, though, we notice that Becca is folding a little boy’s clothes—they are the clothes of Becca’s dead 4-year-old son, Danny, who was hit by a car when he ran into the street some eight months before. This sleight-of-hand—drawing our attention to the sister, whose problems are all surface, in order to ease us into a relationship with Becca, whose heartache is literally buried—is just one of many touches that keep Rabbit Hole from being more than just a bleak rumination on death. In fact, with its wonderful cast and inspired directing by Marilyn Langbehn, Rabbit Hole is one of the best things I’ve seen from Palo Alto Players in years.

A similar sort of distraction is employed when we meet Becca’s husband, Howie (Earle Carlson). We get so invested in the brave, compassionate-yet-pragmatic face he puts on that we don’t consider the possibility that he’s suffering just as much as his wife, until we catch him in his late-night habit of watching a video of their child, filmed just before Danny died. Becca’s mom Nat (Jackie O’Keefe) is also disarming. In part, O’Keefe’s slightly loopy Nat is here for comic relief, but Nat’s got her own backstory—her adult son, Arthur, was a heroin addict who hung himself. Becca, of course, resents her mother’s clumsy comparisons between Arthur’s death and Danny’s, but she eventually sees that for all their differences, from social class to schooling, she and her mom do share something important that she can learn from, however galling it might be for her to admit.

Indeed, the biggest surprise about Rabbit Hole is how hopeful it is. This is especially true when we encounter Jason (Zachary Freier-Harrison), the unlucky teenager whose car crushed poor Danny. He, too, is in need of closure, and his scenes with Warrick are moving, beautifully performed exchanges.

RABBIT HOLE, a Palo Alto Players production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2:30pm through Feb. 7 at Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $20–$30. (650.329.0891)