Arts and Entertainment

Into the rabbit hole: WICA opens Pulitzer Prize-winning play

Melissa McAlerney as Izzy, and Jill Johnson as Nat, go through the trials and tribulations of a family dealing with tragedy in
Melissa McAlerney as Izzy, and Jill Johnson as Nat, go through the trials and tribulations of a family dealing with tragedy in 'Rabbit Hole' opening at WICA Friday, April 10.
— image credit: Patricia Duff / The Record

She went into the rabbit hole which suddenly dipped down quickly.

She couldn’t think or stop herself before she realized she was falling further into an unknown and very deep well.

So Lewis Carroll describes Alice’s fall into Wonderland in his classic tale “Alice In Wonderland.”

It’s understandable, then, that playwright David Lindsay-Abaire gave his play, about a family that endures the very depths of grief, the title “Rabbit Hole.”

Alice’s fall is similar to the one Becca and Howie Corbett take after their world is turned upside down by a tragic accident and leaves the couple drifting to opposite ends of a precarious divide. Trying desperately to avoid the hole themselves are Becca’s sister Izzy and mother, Nat.

The Whidbey Island Center for the Arts production of “Rabbit Hole” opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 10.

The recipient of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Lindsay-Abaire managed to write a play about grief that is both funny and unsentimental.

“Rabbit Hole” charts a New York family’s bittersweet search for comfort in the darkest of places while maintaining the idiosyncratic dysfunctions — often endearing and sometimes annoying — that plague every family no matter what they are going through.

Director Chris Fisher said the play delves into that territory that asks, “How does one survive the unthinkable?”

“There are times when we don’t know why we should want to,” Fisher said.

“That ‘Why survive?’ is beautifully shown in the play; the moments of genuine love and laughter between people who each have suffered a loss.”

Lindsay-Abaire fills each scene with the daily routines that force the family to continue; the daily conversations and confrontations through dinner, the birthday parties, the trips to the supermarket. Life goes on.

Here, a wrenching portrait of a family is revealed; a familiar reflection of life with all its imperfect moments of silence, laughter, argument and sadness.

In his notes on the play, the playwright gives specific directions about avoiding an overly sentimental approach with “Rabbit Hole.” Fisher talked about that particular challenge.

“When a tragedy hits a family and affects everyone, and no one or nothing is to ‘blame,’ we can’t go for the easy or obvious emotions,” Fisher said.

There is as much humor and love as there is struggle and pain, she added.

Guiding actors through such a maze of emotion is tricky and Fisher, a sometime actor herself, said she understood what the ensemble needed for such a demanding exercise.

“In a naturalistic, contemporary play like this, the actors have to be absolutely authentic,” Fisher said.

“Even though the script doesn’t give them such specific information, the actors must build the biographies of their characters’ lives before the play starts. This cast did that work with gusto.”

Once the actors put the play on its feet, really talking to and listening to each other is of the utmost importance for such a play to be believable, the director said.

“That may sound easy, but when you’ve rehearsed the scenes 50 times, how do you make it seem as though it’s for the first time each night of performance?” she asked.

“To achieve that demands a high level of craft, commitment, and paradoxically, rehearsal.”

Ultimately, Fisher said, the goal is to create a powerful experience for the audience.

“I don’t say that lightly. Many times I go to the “professional” theatres and see productions that are technically accomplished but don’t engage me. We strive to make each performance an unforgettable and compelling journey for the audience. With theatre, where the audience and the actors are in the same space at the same time — unmediated through technology — it can be an amazing experience.”

One might anticipate such a journey as filled with blistering angst and wailing outbursts of emotion, Fisher noted.

But “Rabbit Hole” is somewhat of a quiet play, despite the fact that the internal despair of each of the characters comes through loud and clear, due to a cast that is willing to risk and challenge themselves every moment on the stage, she said.

Poet Emily Dickinson understood such despair when she wrote:

There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House,

As lately as Today —

I know it, by the numb look

Such Houses have — alway

All the characters in “Rabbit Hole” live in the “opposite house.” Just like Alice, they inadvertently fell in and now, are trying desperately to climb out.

The production features Max Cole-Takanikos, Patricia Duff, Tom Harris, Jill Johnson, and Melissa McAlerney.

The play is directed by Chris Fisher, with scenic design by George Cribbs, lights by Tyler Raymond and Annie Deacon, costumes by Katie Woodzick and Rob Scott as stage manager.

"Rabbit Hole" runs at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, April 10 through April 25; with one Thursday performance at 7:30 p.m., April 16; and one matinee at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 19.

Tickets range in price from $12 to $16, with discounts available for students and groups, and are available from www.WICAonline.com, 221-8268 or 800-638-7631.

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