David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole was the dark horse winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for drama—his script, about a couple struggling to cope with the loss of their son, wasn't even nominated, but members of the judging committee shoehorned the work to a surprise victory.
The script paints a subtle, powerful portrait of contemporary grief, as a modern couple attempts to navigate the death of their child without the comfort of religion or the panacea of easy blame. Becca (Susannah Mars) and Howie (Duffy Epstein) have recently lost their young son to a random car accident. The couple copes with his death in different ways—Howie joins a support group, while Becca clings tightly to a tragedy that she believes is hers alone.
It's a script where much hinges on the abilities of the cast and director to create a sense of strain, to convey the tension of adults trying to keep their lives together in the face of a horrible loss.
Unfortunately, fineness of feeling doesn't seem to be director Allen Nause's strong point, and he whips his actors into such a frenzy of overacting that what should be a subtle and powerful show instead careens disastrously between the overly sentimental and the unintentionally hilarious.
Nause's direction is problematic, but equally troublesome is Mars' portrayal of Becca. The character is the linchpin of the production, and Mars—though a fine actress—is simply miscast. Becca has to be somewhat sympathetic, in order for the play to have any emotional effect at all; but Mars' character is shrewish and two-dimensional. We see her lashing out at the people around her, but we get no sense that behind her anger is a woman in real pain.
It's hard to understate the extent to which Artists Repertory Theatre has botched this one. It's a mess: maudlin music (plinking piano between scene changes notes remind us that what is happening here is Very Sad Indeed); awkward blocking (the cast spends half their stage time with backs to the audience); heavy-handed emotional peaks that confuse volume with emotional intensity. It's been a while since we've been blown away by an Artists Rep show—here's hoping they get their act together soon, because with the talent and resources they attract, they should be doing better work than this.