Get the Party Stunted: Nat?s festive sweater just can?t bring up the mood.
Get the Party Stunted: Nat?s festive sweater just can?t bring up the mood. Credit: Stan Barouh

Many plays—most, really—deal in conflict not just to keep their scenes ticking along but also so they can serve up a satisfying helping of catharsis before the curtain call. There’s none of that last trick in Rabbit Hole, no great, dam-­breaking release of the accumulated agonies that keep its characters so clenched and wary. David ­Lindsay-Abaire’s play traffics instead in delicate shadings, momentary brightnesses in dark landscapes of grief, small triumphs over the damages that threaten to destroy.

And in Mitchell Hébert’s clean-lined, carefully calibrated production at the Olney Theatre, that fine-grained script—about a perfectly ordinary middle-class family struggling to find its footing again, eight months after an utterly random accident that has claimed its most innocent member—gets a gratifyingly lucid reading. Sharply observed, designed with an eye for telling detail, powered by a strong ensemble cast, it’s an unhurried, unshowy evening, and it gets at the heart without ever being so obvious as to tug at its strings.

Watch the way Deborah Hazlett’s no-nonsense Becca folds clothes, plates a crème caramel, loads the dishwasher: There’s a crispness, a competence, that’s both a barrier to intimacy and a way of proving she’s still in control of her Larchmont demesne.

But that domestic turf is exactly where chaos laid its claim to her life—where an unlatched gate and a dog running loose and a 4-year-old in pursuit added up to an afternoon that never ends, not just for Becca and her husband Howie (Paul Morella), but also for the teenager behind the wheel of that perfectly ordinary car that was, on that perfectly ordinary afternoon, moving at a perfectly ordinary speed. Until suddenly it wasn’t anymore.

Sounds perfectly Lifetime-ish, no? And shape-wise, sure, Rabbit Hole sounds like it ought to have the name Meredith Baxter-Birney inscribed above the title.

But there’s a disarming delicacy to the script’s rhythms, a simplicity and a transparency that never allow its emotions to thicken into treacle. And the restrained eloquence of the Olney ensemble’s performances is crucial: Lindsay-Abaire builds his portrait of Becca and Howie’s desperation on a scaffold of effortlessly natural exchanges (which makes Marie-Noëlle Daigneault’s spic-and-span split-level set a perfect environment), but it’s in the silences between the two, and in the gratifyingly specific subtexts that Morella and Hazlett bring so gracefully to the surface, that the immensity of their pain—and the gulf it’s opening between them—gradually make themselves apparent.

It’s the playwright, for instance, who gives Becca’s visiting younger sister (a fine, funny Megan Anderson) a line about wanting a snack, about how “there’s an extra” in that spotless fridge she keeps rummaging through.

But it’s Hazlett who lets you see Becca draw herself up short, understanding suddenly that she’s made—why she’s made—three individual crème caramels for a Saturday dinner at home, when that home is occupied by just two.

And while it’s Lindsay-Abaire’s script that calls for a sudden emotional beat—a fresh moment of awful, like an icy splash that snatches the breath from the lungs—when Becca’s irritating, irritable mom Nat happens upon a pair of smallish sneakers during a long-delayed bedroom-closet clean-out. But it’s the wonderfully understated Kate Kiley, skating gently over the dangerously thin ice of that moment, who makes the throat-closing shock of it feel true.

Hébert’s production benefits from a wealth of such tiny details, whether actorish or designer-y—and the latter, especially, are invaluable, the sort of grace notes that create whole offstage lives for the characters. Props? Of course Becca is the sort of housewife who shops for groceries not just with Earth-friendly reusable canvas grocery bags but with a matching set of Earth-friendly reusable canvas grocery bags. (They probably live, once they’ve played their scene, in the back of her Volvo, folded tidily in a stack and restrained by that netting in the cargo area.) Costumes? Of course Nat is the kind of mildly mortifying creature who wears, to a daughter’s birthday dinner, a sweater decorated with appliquéd cupcakes.

As Becca, Howie and the others negotiate the taxonomies of grief and grieving—Shall I feel what you feel, or must you join me in my black hole? Shall we sell the house or never leave it, have another child or never have sex again? Shall we keep our distance from the teenager or accept his invitation to a meeting, when we’re ready?—Rabbit Hole almost begins to feel less like a play than a photograph, a relentlessly clear-eyed and yet profoundly sympathetic study of how survivors…well, survive. When there’s no blame to be apportioned, it seems to suggest, no doorstep on which to lay the guilt, the strongest survivors clasp hands and go on—grimly, if necessary, and not always upward—but on, because the alternatives are unthinkable.

Somehow—and this is another thing that makes it extraordinary—Rabbit Hole makes that conclusion feel almost uplifting.