LIVE / REVIEW: Delicate, graceful production chooses truth over histrionics

It sounds like a premise far too heavy for most audiences to want to tackle on an evening at the theater.

Florida Rep’s current production, “Rabbit Hole,” is an unshrinking examination of the way a family recovers after experiencing unthinkable tragedy: the death of a child.

And yet David Lindsay-Abaire’s script is filled not only with achingly real pain and grief and loss, but head-tossing humor — and ultimately, forgiveness, grace, and hope.

Becca and Howie have lost their four-year-old son to an accident, and rather than bringing them together, the tragedy is slowly prying them apart. While they are still dealing with their grief, Becca’s freewheeling, wild-living sister Izzy announces that she’s found herself pregnant.

“The Rabbit Hole”

Who: The Florida Repertory Theatre

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday; 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday; a twilight 7 p.m. performance on Sunday, Jan. 14. Through Jan. 28

Where: 2268 Bay St., Fort Myers

Admission: $15-$36

Information: 332-4488 or www.floridarep.org.

Inserting herself relentlessly into the picture is Nat, the women’s mother, who always manages to say just the wrong thing or interject an inane comment or otherwise constantly agitate the family like a pebble inside a shoe.

And into the middle of all that, Jason, the boy who was driving the car that swerved into their son as he chased his dog into the street, has written Becca and Howie to ask if he could meet them.

It sounds like a movie-of-the-week, and in the hands of a lesser director it easily could play like one. But Maureen Heffernan, who brought both “Art” and “Master Class” to the same full, throbbing life at Florida Rep, knows how to handle delicate human emotions.

She’s chosen quiet truth over dramatic histrionics, letting her actors’ nuanced performances and the beauty of Lindsay-Abaire’s script create pathos through the audience’s constant awareness of the couple’s loss — elegantly illustrated by set designer Ray Recht’s central placement of the boy’s empty, perfectly preserved room. And Heffernan knows how to plumb the script’s ample humor without overplaying it.

As Becca and Howie, Rachel Burttram and Christopher Swan never fall into the trap of either trumped-up tears and meaningfully gripped hands, or bland emotionlessness. Fire seethes just under their placid surfaces, leaping up past their defenses to ignite moments that almost, but never quite, connect them. The couple is handling their pain privately, separately, keeping the volcano of emotions they are both feeling carefully sealed under a desperately maintained veneer of stone-faced stoicism.

They rarely touch. Eye contact is made only sporadically. Their exchanges are painfully polite, as if the merest moment of real connection between them will crumble the battlements that are allowing the two to function.

And yet the silences between the gifted actors are as riveting — sometimes more so — as Lindsay-Abaire’s crisp, utterly real dialogue. Love pulses between them — Howie’s botched attempt to set up a romantic evening with Becca shows both his naked need and the awkwardness that has sprung up between them.

For a show with such beautifully realized depths of emotion, “Rabbit Hole” is also unexpectedly hilarious. Becca’s party-girl sister, Izzy (Michelle Damato) provides a healthy helping of the comic relief, her unpretentiously honest observations pile-driving right through Becca’s carefully constructed house of cards.

Damato is a fireball, radiating energy and clear-eyed life next to Burttram’s desperate calm. Her Izzy is as unrestrained as Becca is repressed, heedlessly disgorging whatever brutally candid thought crosses her mind.

As their mother Nat, Carrie Lund walks just the right comic balance between boorishness and well-intentioned efforts to help, her fatuous comments plunking into moments like bricks into a well.

Theatre intern G. Clark Finfrock brings a lovely vulnerability to his role as Jason, a high school student haunted by the pain he’s inadvertently caused, blindly seeking an absolution he’s too young to realize he needs.

The real tragedy of “Rabbit Hole” lies in the guilt every character onstage feels for the boy’s loss. They are the true victims, five people wading through the pain of a responsibility and heartache whose weight they all share, but not its release.

Lindsay-Abaire doesn’t take the easy out of an uncomplicatedly uplifting message of redemption and peace. But his graceful, hopeful script reflects the dignity and beauty to be found on the hardest parts of life’s path, the heroic human capacity to get back up and stay in the ring when life’s agonies knock you flat. It’s the things we least want to think about that are where our strongest emotions lie. “Rabbit Hole” is the best of what theater is for: to move its audience, to lift us beyond our own experiences and pull us though a catharsis, and to connect us through universal emotions — loss, pain, love and hope.

Reach Tiffany Yates at tiffanythescribe@msn.com.

© 2007 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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