“As I look around, I see things that remind me/
Just to see you smile made my heart fill with joy/
I’ll still recall all those dreams we shared together/
Where did you run to, boy?”
– Diana Ross, “Missing You” (written by Lionel Richie), 1984
Who decided that there’s a “proper” way to heal? What committee got together and collectively agreed that healing from tragedy is as rote as following instructions on the side of a box? If there were such a committee, it’s a safe bet that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross would lead it. Her five-stage model kicked off a cottage industry that makes billions selling the public easy grief-relief the way infomercials sell super-fast weight-loss cures.
It’s true that one needs to acknowledge their grief in order to deal with it (preferably with professional help), but – just like dieting and weight loss – looking for a quick fix will ultimately do more damage than it appears to solve. The human body just wasn’t made for that sort of expeditious recovery, be it physically or mentally. What’s more, a genuine professional will tell you that no two people in the world are alike, so expecting the same results as someone else is just setting yourself up for failure. You can’t force your heart to mend itself.
I don’t know what tragedy befell David Lindsay-Abaire, but it’s easy to see why his Pulitzer-winning play resonated with so many people. Its central conceit is based around the fact the pain of grief never goes away, but as a living person you have to learn with that grief. And sometimes the most difficult realization is the fact that yes, your life will continue.
Becca and Howie loved their son Danny. They loved him every day of his life. They never expected that, as his parents, they would live to see his final day. Months later, they’re still haunted by the car accident that took their child from them. It’s a wound that may never heal.
But the world keeps turning, a fact made clear by a surprise announcement from Becca’s sister Izzy. Similarly complicating matters is Becca and Howie trying to decide if they should sell their house, which would mean giving away Danny’s things. All of this is compounded by the sudden reappearance of Jason, the teen who drove the car that hit Danny.
All Becca and Howie want is for things to return to normal. They’re slowly beginning to realize that will never happen.
Not having seen this play before – nor its 2010 film adaptation – it took me a minute to figure out that the story was contemporary, albeit now a decade removed. Both Hector Zavala’s post-mod set pieces and the old-school music choices that played during the pre-show (including John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” and Marvin Gaye’s “Your Precious Love”) gave off a very ‘70s vibe that wasn’t dismissed until the characters began mentioning modern technology, and even that was sparingly. (A crucial scene revolves around a videotape, which had already become a rarity by the mid-2000s.)
It led me to wonder how Lindsay-Abaire’s play would work transferred to a different era. The characters never use mobile phones or alerts, and one key scene relies on a hand-written letter. Had this play been set fifty years prior, I doubt much would change. After all, it isn’t as if grief is a new concept. On the contrary: it’s one of the most timeless. But this works both for Lindsay-Abaire (in that it makes his play equally timeless) and against it (in that the tiny technological specificities draw notice to themselves).
Fortunately, the playwright wisely focuses on character more than setting. With the exception of Nat – who improves but starts off the play a bit too much like Kate Keller from All My Sons – the characters transcend archetypes well. Becca being the “responsible” sibling to Izzy the Troublemaker is a sticking point when Izzy makes her announcement. I kept expecting Nat and Howie to be the bickering mother-in-law and son-in-law, respectively, but the play wisely avoids this cliché. It’s this reliance on showing the characters rather than telling us – Jason walking into the house creates a necessary tension everyone knew had to come sooner or later – that give the script a strong-if-flawed resonance.
And those well-rounded characters are well brought to life by Michael Barr’s cast. Amber Collins Crane at times carries the entire production on her shoulders as Becca, but she appears more than up to the task. Perfectly conveying Becca’s heartbreak and potential self-destruction (her emotional breakdown in front of Jason is a master class in not forcing emotion) makes her performance alone worth the price of admission. Mia Romero is clearly having fun with the bar-brawling bad girl that is Izzy, but Romero also finds the character’s vulnerability. Her taking offense at the idea that she won’t be a responsible parent one day clearly hurts her and she isn’t someone who will allow herself to be hurt – not even by family. And although I found Nat’s Act 1 conspiracy theories an ill fit, Mary Price Moore tries her best to make them believable. Her best moment is when Nat tells Becca that grief is like a weight that never goes away, it simply becomes more bearable.
The women are so good that they sort of tip the scale, cast-wise. The men aren’t at all bad, mind you, just both satisfactory in their respective roles as Jason (Hector Mendez) and Howie (company Artistic Director Steve Bologna). And although I’m not sure what to make of Hector Zavala’s set, it’s at least a memorable part of Breach Once More’s low-budget production (though the actors tended to vanish whenever they stepped behind the bar).
If there were ever a true cure for grief, I’m sure the first step of the process would consist of two words: “seek help”. That help may take the form of therapy, prescribed anti-depressants, support groups, or some other form that doesn’t immediately come to mind. The point is, you should never feel that you’re alone or that your pain will last forever.
What Breach Once More’s production lacks in flashy production design it makes up for with emotionally sincere performances. Its focus is on how these characters act and react to the actions around them. And in the end, that’s all that’s really needed.
Rabbit Hole is scheduled to run until the 24th of March at the Young Performers Theatre at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 1 hour and 40 min. with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit Breach Once More’s official site here.