David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole, the final offering in this season's Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio series, arrives burdened by a lot of baggage. Last year, after the Broadway production of Rabbit Hole had lost the Tony Award to The History Boys, this account of a family fractured by the accidental death of their four-year-old son received the Pulitzer Prize for best play — but only after the Pulitzer board overruled its own nominating jury, which had recommended three other finalists. Apparently some critics deem Rabbit Hole to be too commercial to be taken seriously.
It's true: This tale of torment is sustained by many solid laughs. But no play should be discredited because it knows how to engage an audience. If Rabbit Hole were commercial, it would have been performed on the main stage (where the Rep produced The History Boys earlier this season). The Broadway production of Rabbit Hole, complete with "name" actors, lasted only 77 performances — hardly a box-office powerhouse. But to encounter this delicate drama in the intimacy of the studio is a gorgeous experience, akin to listening to a carefully nuanced string quintet.
The piece they are rendering has been beautifully crafted. The dialogue is so honed and polished that it propels the play forward. It's a rare speech in Rabbit Hole that runs for more than three sentences. There are no self-indulgent monologues to slow the action and allow the viewer to tune out. Yet it's not so much what the characters say here that grips us; the poignancy comes in what they're incapable of saying.
To summarize the plot — child chases pet dog into the street, gets hit by car, etc. — is to demean Lindsay-Abaire's achievement, for that makes it too easy for a naysayer to carp, "I saw this before in Ordinary People" (or any of a dozen other plays and films). We all have. Writers don't live in a vacuum; these family tragedies are the stuff of drama. But no one has yet found a formula for how to cope with the aftermath. Rabbit Hole deals with guilt and blame and comfort and endurance in its own unique way that allows for — no, not tragedy — but rather a brutally urgent evening of wrenching theater about how life continues behind closed doors.
Perhaps in lesser hands a production could result in soapsuds. But as directed by Jane Page, the Rep staging is a marvel of wonderfully realized details. Every minute is filled. One example: Early in Act One the raucous Izzy, who is visiting her bereaved sister Becca, discovers an extra crème caramel in the fridge. "Can I have it?" Izzy impetuously asks. Becca takes the briefest of pauses before answering, "Yeah, OK." In that eloquent pause Becca in effect plunges a dagger into our hearts, because that's when we make the discovery — we make it, the playwright never tells us — that all these months later Becca is still cooking for her lost son. Victoria Adams-Zischke conveys the ambivalence of that moment perfectly. She doesn't hammer home any of these accumulating incidents, yet by evening's end she has etched an unsparing glimpse into the depth of despair.
The evening is fraught with subtle subtext, at which the entire company excels. As Becca's husband, Timothy McCracken's portrayal of strength turns out to be more façade than even he realizes. Ashley West is properly self-absorbed as Izzy, the sister who tries too hard to relate to what she cannot understand. Carolyn Swift finds a vein of goodness in their foolish salt-of-the-earth mother. Late in the evening we meet the teen who drove the accidental-death car. With his arms stiffly at his sides, Adam King resembles a cadaver ossified by guilt; they just haven't buried him yet.
These fertile performances are nurtured by an environment that includes a marvelously fractured stage design by Robert Mark Morgan, clothing designed by Garth Dunbar that is as informative as any dialogue and empathetic lighting by John Wylie where the light rays at times seem to substitute for the tears the characters are unable to shed.