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'Rabbit Hole' a powerful production at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center

TAMPA — To describe, in any objective way, the theme and subject matter of David Lindsay-Abaire's The Rabbit Hole does the play an injustice.

If you say it's an examination of grief, which it is, it sounds like any number of standard and cheaply lachrymose works that have come before it. If you say the plot revolves around a woman meeting the teenage driver who killed their 4-year-old son, which it does, it sounds like the stuff of a Lifetime movie.

In fact, the play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama a couple of years ago, is both more delicate and more sinewy than those descriptions suggest.

The material gets the kind of nuanced and powerful production it deserves in the current staging by Jobsite Theater. Director Paul Potenza leads a cast through almost uniformly stunning performances.

At the play's center is a young couple who lost their son in a car accident eight months before. It's long enough ago that shock and sobbing have given way to a semblance of normality — jobs, housework and the minutiae of daily living — but recent enough that the tragedy insinuates itself into almost every moment. Small talk degenerates into accusatory argument; simple mistakes are examined for insidious subconscious causes.

The wife (Meg Heimstead) and husband (Christopher Rutherford) grieve differently, and the differences tear at the fabric of their relationship. Heimstead and Rutherford give a real sense that these people were terrifically happy and in love before the accident. Now they're so obsessed with their own grief and guilt they can barely pay attention to each other, except in cursory and clumsy attempts to refresh their marriage.

Other familial relationships — Heimstead's character has a somewhat overbearing mother (Diana Rogers), whose own adult son has died some years before, and a ditzy newly pregnant sister (Katrina Stevenson) — have also been irrevocably altered.

They've never had to deal with Jason, the teenage driver who struck their son, until he contacts them. He's grieving in his own way, plagued by the thought that, just maybe, he might have been driving two miles over the speed limit when the 4-year-old ran in front of his car.

American Stage newcomer Brent Reams is at least as compelling as his more seasoned castmates. He offers a convincing social awkwardness, and we get a real sense of his desperation: He's been dealing with his anguish alone, reading about the boy and his family only in newspapers and can no longer bear the isolation.

Rabbit Hole is sad, of course, but it's not the least bit depressing. There's an underlying sense of strength in these people and these interpersonal bonds that make the play's enduring feeling one of hopefulness. And while there's no happy ending offered, by the final curtain we sense that these characters have finally taken the first tiny steps in the right direction.

Marty Clear is a Tampa freelance writer who specializes on performing arts. He can be reached at mclear@tampabay.rr.com.

.Review

'Rabbit Hole'

Through June 21 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's Shimberg Playhouse. About 135 minutes.
8 p.m., Thursday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday. $24.50 plus service charge. (813) 229-7827 or tbpac.org.

'Rabbit Hole' a powerful production at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center 06/08/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 10, 2009 11:58am]
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