The open house has not been a success. Potential buyers did not materialise. Mother, Father, Grandmother and Aunt fret and chat about what might help. Should the son’s room be cleaned up, his things packed away? Do questions about him put off buyers? While they chat, the son’s dog barks and barks.
The front door opens. A young lad stands slightly inside the door. Awkward, fearful, tense. Brave. Everyone else has a shocked face that says the same thing: “What are you doing here?” The air is choked with alarm and fear. The lad, shaking from fear, tries to communicate. Father will have none of it, his internal barometer rising sharply, as if some primeval revenge urge was surging inside him. The Mother is quiet, softer, but still shocked, perhaps not so much from the unexpected visit as from the fragility of the visitor. He is, after all, someone else’s son.
Even if he was driving the car which hit and killed her own son.
This is David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning play, Rabbit Hole, finally having its London premiere at the Hampstead Theatre in a production directed by Edward Hall. It’s a deeply complex and ultimately moving contemplation of grief and its corrosive effects. It revolves around relatively ordinary people, albeit reasonably well off ones, and surfs on waves of fear, revulsion, disunity, incomprehension and deeply felt love.
Rabbit Hole is an example of brilliant, insightful writing that never opts for pretentiousness over truth and honesty. It is modern American drama at its most effective.
In the programme, Lindsay-Abaire opines:
There is a lot of sadness in the play, but there’s also a lot of light, hope and comedy. That balance is a delicate one, and any bit of excess or indulgence can throw it off and damage the story I wanted to tell. Given the circumstances of the play, pretty much ANY scene in it could be played for sadness, but if directors and actors take that bait, the play becomes unbearable to watch. I know because I have seen it happen.
Save in one respect, Lindsay-Abaire has nothing to worry about on that score in Hall’s really quite superb production. Ashley Martin-Davis provides a splendid and harrowing set – it’s the interior of a home, nice but not opulent. The main living area is adjacent to the kitchen; a TV room is off to the right and upstairs, always on view, is the deceased Danny’s bedroom, full of his things, his robot-covered bed sheets, his toys, his scent.
The ever present shrine to Danny is a constant brooding force in the production, just as dealing with his absence is a constant theme of the narrative. Equally, though, there is a fractured reality about the set which reflects the shattered natures of the inhabitants and visitors to the place which once was Danny’s home.
Danny’s Mother, Becca, can’t face up to the reality of his loss and seeks to remove all reminders of Danny from the house: photographs, his hand-paintings, his clothes. Dad Howie, on the other hand, can’t face the reality either, but wants to keep every possible trace of Danny around, as a reminder, and can frequently be found in the TV room watching home movies of Danny’s short life.
Aunt Izzy is unexpectedly pregnant and secretly afraid that her phone call for help on the day of Danny’s death contributed to, or worse caused, his death. Grandmother Nat, who has also experienced the death of a son, is all at sea. Each character seems unable to speak openly and honestly about their feelings, afraid of saying the wrong thing or hitting yet another raw nerve.
Restraint radiates through every character’s actions. Nothing is ostentatious. The opening scene is a crisp two-hander between Becca and the attention-seeking Izzy, as Izzy tries to find a way to tell her sister that she is pregnant to a man Becca has not yet met. While Izzy’s tale plays out, humourously and eccentrically, Becca is carefully folding some washing. It seems drearily normal.
Quite some time passes before one realises that there are a lot of clothes of the same type being folded. This is no normal washing day ritual. Becca is putting clothes into storage. Thus the death of Danny is revealed, slowly, surely, delicately. When the dialogue comes confirming his death, it seems prepared for. The cocoon of restraint cushions the blow of mortality.
What Lindsay-Abaire’s writing does best is not engage in trite or sentimental claptrap. His characters are fragile and totally believable. They make mistakes, make jokes, blunder and bluster. They are not an harmonious group gripped tightly together by bonds of aching remorse.
No. These are normal people trying to cope, still being the people they were before Danny’s death but functioning differently. They both talk too much and not nearly enough. They are all interesting, flawed characters and they speak with authentic words and phrases. The clarity and precision of the dialogue is arrestingly brilliant.
So too are the situations, some of which, on reflection, produce shudders of real distress simply on identification: the Grandmother sniffing her lost grandchild’s clothes, desperately recalling his presence; the Father sitting alone in the dark with his memories of his lost son; the Mother reading a letter from the lad who drove the car which took Danny away permanently; the accidental – or deliberate – wiping of the latest video-taped home movie; the moment when the Father proposes that the mother and he resume conjugal relations; the confrontation between the suspicious Aunt and the Father about who he had been seen dining with and why.
There is nothing melodramatic here – the situations and experiences are powerful and familiar because they are natural, normal, commonplace.
Jason is the lad who was driving the car into the path of which Danny fatefully ran. The crafty Lindsay-Abaire introduces him as a kind of Joker in this Full House of bereavement. Jason is no wrong’un, no high roller, no downandouter. No. He is a perfectly respectful, well-brought up young man, deeply affected by the accident and its ramifications on his life.
Jason is precisely who Becca and Howie would have wished Danny to grow up and be. So his unannounced presence – both when he writes to them and then when he appears unexpectedly after the Open House – alters the crystalline structure of the grieving. Shatters it. Permits closure and new beginnings.
Jason is pivotal to the ultimate success of the play. Without an exemplary, controlled and brilliant performance from the actor playing him, Rabbit Hole would not reach the heights it should. Hall has made a very wise choice in casting Sean Delaney in this role, a young actor of whom, no doubt, a great deal more will be heard. Delaney is utterly outstanding. He makes Jason sing as a character.
This is an ordinary, charming young man, scholarly and well mannered, who has had his world upturned because a small boy ran unexpectedly in front of him. The guilt and fear he feels is palpable, whether in the way he shakes when he gets a note from his pocket, his slightly hysterical recounting of his Prom night or the fastidious way he eats a cookie, utterly unsure of himself and what to say and do.
Delaney is faultless. The extraordinary Act Two scene he shares with Claire Skinner’s broken Becca is a masterclass, with both actors in exemplary form. This is the emotional high-point of the play and it would be only the hardest of hearts that could see it and not respond.
Skinner glows with intensity but never overplays her hand. In fact, so good is she at underplaying, at conveying the stoic levels of shut down emotional response on display, that when she finally cracks in this scene, tears flowing from her as if a garden hose had been set off by a timer, she does it imperceptibly. Delaney is so good at being the involving honest intruder, the one who has lost his girlfriend after the crash, the one who fears he may have been slightly over the speed limit and has tormented himself about it, the one who is compelling and beguiling, that she permits him the focus – her Becca is a mess of tears long before the audience takes its attention away from Delaney’s Jason to notice.
Skinner is quite magnificent throughout. From her blank folding of the washing, her obsessive need to bake, to her strained complicity with Howie about the manner of dealing with Danny’s memory, her fractious relationship with Izzy and Nat, her comfortable communing with silence and blank expression, Skinner makes Becca powerfully distraught, fundamentally ravaged and utterly normal. She gives nothing away, playing every moment with a gentle, composed, and understated, breath of frailty. Throwaway lines dictate the boundaries of her character’s emotions in succinct, emphatic ways.
This is a woman who put her whole life into being a mother and then had her child taken from her: she doesn’t want a career, can’t face another child, and doesn’t want help. Complex is an understatement. Yet Skinner shines a light onto every facet Becca has, and the result is devastating.
Unfortunately, Skinner does not get the support she needs/deserves from Tom Goodman-Hill whose Howie is dull when he needs to be charming and attractive, laborious when he needs to be energised and soft when he should be hard. It is scarcely possible to believe that Becca and Howie were ever married, so detached from Skinner is Goodman-Hill.
Counter-intuitively, his performance needs to be both darker and lighter, calmer and more aggressive, uncomprehending and wise. As written, the roles represent a perfect tennis doubles combination; as played, Skinner was A grade, Goodman-Hill a reserve. The scenes where the sympathy pendulum should have swung to Howie failed; the scenes where his loyalty and appropriateness should have been under the spotlight fizzled out.
Penny Downie is in excellent form as the slightly demented Nan, bringing an earthy sense of the outsider to the House of Mourning. She seemed to be channelling Patti Lupone and the wholehearted and slightly raucous tone that came with that worked well. Becca has escaped Nat’s working class roots and Downie marks out that territory seamlessly, convincingly. Nat’s misguided and misjudged speech about the tragedy of Rose Kennedy is a moment of comic genius, but also a reminder that grief can make way for other emotions if there is the will. Downie delivers the speech in spot-on, metal-on-chalkboard jarring blindness. The scene where Downie and Skinner jointly packed up Danny’s room was wry and piercing.
Izzy is the wildest member of the affected family and Georgina Rich gives her admirable, spiky lustre. Her relationship with her sister and mother is nicely sophisticated – bound in love but with barbed wire at regular, knotty intervals. Her best work came in the scene where she put an unpleasant truth to Howie, but throughout her work was finely judged. Raw and inappropriate, loud and self-centred, her Izzy was the madcap Aunt that, no doubt, Danny adored.
This really is a tremendous play and Edward Hall brings it nicely to the boil. Skinner and Delaney astonish in every way. Forget the lacklustre 2010 film version: this piece of dramatic modern writing will restore your faith in the capacity for theatre to debate the great topics in life and to let everyone who sees Rabbit Hole feel a little more alive.