It’s a treat for me to get to see new plays by American playwrights. The language and the people are, for once, familiar; I relax and enjoy spending time with people I recognize. So it was with Rabbit Hole, the Pulitzer prize winning play making its UK debut at the Hampstead Theater. Since David Linsay-Abaire’s last play (that I saw), Good People, was my favorite show of 2014, I booked for Rabbit Hole immediately, without bothering to read anything about it. I advise you to do so now as well, while there are still a few tickets left; consider this your spoiler alert as I’ll shortly be discussing the plot of this play. If you don’t want to know anything, just stop reading and get a ticket. If you trust my tastes, you won’t regret that decision.
But for those of you who need a little more persuading, let me say that the pleasure of the slow burn of this play about grief is hard for me to put into words. Deaths come to plays and pass quickly; grief comes to our world and stays forever. People learn to cope with it – or they don’t – and this evolution, this accommodation, is at the heart of this story. Becca (Claire Skinner) and Howie (Tom Goodman-Hill) seem like they might have once been a normal couple, but the grief of dealing with their young son’s accidental death have left them like two castaways on a storm-swept island, with enough to eat but absolutely no ability to relate to or even recognize one another as struggling with the same problems. Claire’s sister Izzy (Georgina Rich) and mother Nat (Penny Downie) come visit them at their house, but with the amount of engagement Claire can spare for them, she might have well just turned on the TV. The world is not real for her. These other people are not real for her. And when her husband reaches out to her, he might as well be pointing a leafless stick at her for the welcome she gives him. It’s just crushing: they’re both drowning and neither of them can do a thing to help the other.
I found the words of this play very every-day and the opposite of overwrought; they were simple, accurate, and quietly heartbreaking. Absolutely crushing, though, were the tiny interactions of the people with their environment showing the great pits of despair sucking at them from the inside like a black hole trying to turn them inside out. Howie chills out by watching videos of his son; Claire is unable to bear the sight of the dog she holds responsible for the accident. It got to the point that when the son’s cartoons disappeared off of the fridge, I worried about who was responsible. Had Claire finally gone off the edge?
The acting is generally quite good, although I thought Izzy was too bouncily abrasive and seemed to clash oddly with Claire’s much more settled middle class self; perhaps, though, it’s Claire who’s moved a bit up in life but it really felt to me like Linsay-Abaire had just not got the character written right (although in Good People he showed he was quite good at this, who knows what happened). Once I’d gotten past the initial scene with Izzy and Claire, though, I settled right down for a lovely two hours of having my soul crushed delicately and subtlely, so, at the very end, I found myself shocked to feel hot tears pooling up in my eyes (as they are, again, as I write this) for the tiny firefly of hope we are left with in the final scene. It was only a faint glow, seen through clenched hands, but it just destroyed me because I had long ago given up the belief that there was actually ever going to be anything to hope for.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, February 15th, 2016. Rabbit Hole continues through April 16th.)