A Family Despair: A couple wrestles quietly with its sons death.s death.
A Family Despair: A couple wrestles quietly with its sons death.s death.

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There are no crazy characters in Rab- bit Hole, David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about coping with family tragedy. I point this out because, in so many thematically similar new plays, death seems to function as a plot device while the real problems are survivors who pop pills, swill Svedka, and/or suffer mental breakdowns. August: Osage County and Other Desert Cities are good examples. What’s refreshing about Rabbit Hole—if you can describe a play about the death of a 4-year-old child as refreshing—is that it is an honest exploration of grief rather than dysfunction.

The Keegan Theatre’s production honors Lindsay-Abaire’s eloquent, witty, and honest text with a low-budget staging that’s worth seeing, assuming that you can suck down a little sadness with your summer humidity. The minimal set suffers from some carpentry problems and the shifts in lighting are distracting, but the acting is solid. Mark A. and Susan Marie Rhea, the real-life couple that runs Keegan, star as Howie and Becca, suburban New Yorkers who seem to be on the road to normalcy eight months after the death of their son, Danny. In the first scene, Becca is calmly folding and boxing up pint-size football jerseys and pajamas while her younger sister Izzy (Shayna Blass) recounts her latest life struggles. “Exactly how do you get fired from an Applebee’s?” Becca asks, while treating her sister to home-baked crème caramel, the first of many comforting desserts she serve over the course of the play.

But having your life together outwardly and balancing your emotions internally are very different things, and everyone in this family is processing grief differently. Howie pops tapes of Danny in the VCR every night; Becca bristles if she so much as runs into a preschooler at Whole Foods. Linda High plays Becca’s mother Nat, who makes ill-timed remarks about dead Kennedys and connects the loss of her grandson to her own son’s drug-related death a decade earlier. Izzy, for all her mishaps, turns out to be the most stable character onstage. She provides both comic relief via Tickle Me Elmo jokes and a voice of reason.

If you’ve seen the 2010 movie adaption, which adds characters but retains the play’s dialogue, it may be tough to erase Nicole Kidman’s sad blue saucer eyes and Aaron Eckhart’s soccer-dad charm from your mind. Yet Keegan’s cast does a credible job, and one of the strongest performances comes from the actor who spends the least time onstage. Local teen Patrick Joy plays Jason, a boy tangentially connected to Danny’s death. Those halting moments he spends shares with Susan Rhea are the most tear-jerking but also the most sincere. There’s as much meaning in what isn’t said as what it is, and Lindsay-Abaire doesn’t waste a word in the entire script. Because it’s easy to find a support group to tell you everything’s going to be OK, but much harder to believe in a hope left unsaid.­