Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Gone baby gone

‘Rabbit Hole' examines life, loss, love – and how we move on

E-mail this article \ Print this article

Stan Barouh
Life goes on: Paul Morella as Howie, Kate Kiley as Nat, Megan Anderson as Izzy and Deborah Hazlett as Becca do their best to mark life's milestones after a family tragedy.

Nobody claps.

That's the thing about "Rabbit Hole" at Olney Theatre Center: After the two hours has elapsed, feeling more like 30 minutes, and the five actors on stage have had their way with the audience, and the audience has gone there in the voyeuristic way that audiences do, clapping seems out of the question. It might disturb the stillness, mar the fragile world that has been created, give away the fact that, yes, we've been listening at the door. We are here. And we're sorry. And we don't quite know what to say.

"The audience becomes that additional character, more in this play than others," says actor Paul Morella. "It's like a ride you take – this scary roller coaster; it has peaks and valleys, emotional crests, and you're going to be tossed and buffeted."

Getting people to take that ride, says Morella, is the tough part, perhaps because David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning play is about a family's reaction – eight months on — to their son's tragic accidental death. Harrowing stuff, and yet "Rabbit Hole" manages to be smart, and funny and cathartic. Sad, yes, infinitely sad, but moving and hopeful, too.

"The beauty of this," the actor continues, "is, yes, it requires something of the audience. Yes, it's a challenging piece. It doesn't rely on sentiment; it's not a feel-good Lifetime movie of the week.

"But this is why you go to the theater in the first place: this catharsis. You take the journey, and you'll be rewarded."

Giant step

This is Mitchell Hébert's first directing job at Olney, although he's a veteran actor who has portrayed everyone from Salieri to Tartuffe on the OTC stage.

"When I read the script through for the first time," he says, "it was thrilling, moving and terrifying, and funny, too."

Hébert wonders if the play, nominated for six Tony Awards in 2006, tends to be mischaracterized because of the tragedy at its center.

"It's about people trying to connect," he says. "Everyone is grieving, eight months after this tragedy. They're past the keening stage of grief, moving toward the question of ‘What do we do next?'"

A character actually asks that question, one that resonates particularly at Olney. Hébert, director of the University of Maryland theater department's master of fine arts program, has seen the changes since he last performed here in 2000.

"It's astonishing," he says. "Everything has taken a giant step: programming-wise, content-wise, quality-wise.

"It's made my job easier."

Also making the director's job easier is the cast of "Rabbit Hole." The Corbetts – Morella plays Howie, the dad-who's-no-longer-a-dad, and Deborah Hazlett is his wife Becca, torn between wanting to grieve and needing to move on – are a typical suburban family, except for the "thing that happened."

Becca's mother (Kate Kiley) and sister (Megan Anderson) provide more than just comic relief; they give the story depth and shape. And Aaron Blinden, the University of Maryland senior who plays Jason, the unfortunate teenager behind the wheel of the car that struck Danny Corbett, is simply heartwrenching.

Loss

How can a play about the death of a child be funny?

"Families are funny, and stupid — they say stupid things," says Deborah Hazlett. "I think it's a play about real life, and families, and hope and forgiveness."

Hazlett recently relocated to Baltimore, "my home," she says. "As ‘home' as it gets for a gypsy vagabond like me."

Growing up "all over" with her military family, Hazlett says she was in third grade, on a field trip to Ford's Theatre to see "Godspell" when "that thing that bites you, bit me."

Her mom enrolled her in a children's theater program; eventually, she earned a bachelor's degree in theater from the University of North Carolina Greensboro and a master of fine arts degree from UNC Chapel Hill.

How does she channel Becca?

"You can't have had the experience of every character you play," she says. "But we all know about loss; most people alive on the planet know about loss."

Hazlett plays Becca as a woman whose pain ebbs and flows. Sometimes it obliterates all her other emotions, sometimes she's able to cope.

"The only way to make the play work is to drop the mask," she says. "To be vulnerable, and to allow the losses I've experienced in my life to be present.

"I feel very close to Becca," she adds. "I understand Becca in a very particular way.

"And what I bring to the table is just this understanding and the playwright's words. No bells and whistles – it's just so simple."

Closure

Or maybe not. Playing a grieving parent is physically demanding – Hazlett can attest to that – but it also carries emotional weight Morella finds hard to categorize.

"It's virtually unfathomable in many ways," he says. "How do you prepare? What do you draw from?

"It has been an arduous experience in that sense, in terms of venturing into those territories."

Morella grew up in Rockville and Bethesda – he would see shows at Olney Theatre when he was younger, he says. After studying English, journalism and theater at Washington and Lee University, he earned a master of fine arts degree in theater at Catholic University and became a mainstay of the D.C. theater scene.

He's also a dad in real life – and his quiet anguish as Howie Corbett adds to the go-home-and-hug-your-kids reflex the play inspires.

"With a play like this," he says, "everybody brings a personal experience on some level, directly or indirectly.

"That's what the playwright had in mind: universal themes."

Because the tragedy on which the story turns was an accident, he points out, "it speaks to the randomness of things… There's no place to fix any blame, no way to get closure."

Because sometimes – maybe most times — there is no closure. There's just going on, moving forward.

The rabbit hole of the title is a young man's science fiction fantasy, a portal to a parallel universe where the bad things haven't happened. It's a comforting thought, but no more than that. There's no easy escape through a neat little hole. "Rabbit Hole" is about making the emotional journey, the one that leaves you changed and affected and hopeful and sad, and renders you unable to applaud.

"Rabbit Hole" is on the Olney Theatre Mainstage Stage, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, through Sept. 7. Performances start at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday (except Sept. 3), 7:30 p.m. Sunday Aug. 24 and 31, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $25 to $48, with discounts available to groups, seniors and students. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.