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Tunneling Up 

by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & "C & lt;/span & ome on out in the midwinter slush to see a sad play about a married couple grieving the death of their 4-year-old son."





Rabbit Hole will be a hard sell to people who dismiss gloomy plays as "too depressing." (They have enough sadness in their lives already, you know.) But like most tragic-themed plays, Rabbit Hole points out ideals -- a happy family life, for instance -- worth striving for. Seeing a family maimed only makes us value the one we have all the more. Tragicomedy is counterintuitive like that: It vaults us past the sadness, and we leave the theater rejuvenated.





In the Actors Rep Theatre production of David Lindsay-Abaire's play (at SFCC's Spartan Theatre through Jan. 26), director Tralen Doler clearly has insisted on simplicity and restraint -- which makes the giving-in to grief all the more harrowing when at last it arrives. All five cast members turn in remarkable, even outstanding work, but if there's a central figure here, it's Page Byers as Becca, the dead boy's mother -- angry, repressed, resentful. In the opening conversation with her younger sister Izzy (Caryn Hoaglund), Becca assumes the role of the maternal authority figure, the finder-out of guilt. The two sisters fight over food, clothes, furnishings -- whatever is at hand, as long as they can remind themselves of their misery. In arguments with her husband and mother, too, Byers show how Becca, while acknowledging that she wasn't at fault in little Danny's death, nonetheless isn't going to allow herself any more joy in life, not ever. She can maintain appearances, but if her child is dead, she's going to take whatever happiness she finds and stomp on it. Becca punishes herself even in the drab, shapeless dress she sometimes wears. (Jessica Ray's costumes -- including Izzy's opening party-girl get-up and the loud print for Kathie Doyle-Lipe's brassy matron -- quietly supplement the acting.)





Playgoers will remember Michael Weaver's performance as Howie, the father, for its towering rages at an intruder and even at his own wife (in an argument where the anger flows out of sadness, though no one's willing to admit it). But watch the quieter moments, too: the slow burn, seated in an armchair, when he disapproves of something Becca has said or done; the tender resolution to fight against despair in the final scene at the kitchen table.





As the teenager whose car accidentally crushed the life of Becca and Howie's little boy, Jimmy-James Pendleton is a revelation. (He's a long way here from musical comedy.) Sad helpless anxiety marks every bit of crumpled-posture hand-wringing that Pendleton does, and his performance, hauntingly, is full of unshed tears.





As Becca's mother Nat, Kathie Doyle-Lipe switches gears from meddling to compassion. As with Weaver, few of her comedic acting mannerisms are on display, and she refashions her character convincingly. Hoaglund's notable for playing away from stereotype: Izzy's a carefree spirit, the party animal who's never grown up, so everyone knows that she could never learn to be responsible for herself or others. Except that everyone's wrong. And by showing us Izzy's reluctant enthusiasm for new challenges, Hoaglund demonstrates that she can change -- just like the rest of us, even if we're choked by grief.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & his emphasis on upsetting expectations -- learning to accept that other people have different ways of grieving -- extends even to the ways playgoers may respond to set designer John Hofland's upper-middle-class kitchen and living room. Small portraits of Danny cluster on the forestage, toppled at odd angles. Three over-size drawings of the dead little boy loom over the living areas, looking vaguely creepy. Surely, I thought, such large-scale paintings would over-literalize the haunting nature of grief. Do we really need conversations to be held in front of giant portraits?





And yet ... witnessing the screaming arguments in the presence of those large-scale pictures -- witnessing them in real time, with the hush of attentive playgoers and their occasional sniffling, their slight leaning forward to catch the quieter lines -- all combine to make the portraits feel like part of a ritual. It's a ritual of grief we all have or will someday undergo, and it's staring us in the face. There is nothing at all that we will ever be able to do to make it go away.





One scene, with Byers and Doyle-Lipe sorting through little Danny's clothes and toys, is presented through one of the portraits, which turns out to be a scrim: We literally see the little evasions, the talking-around the ever-present topic of death, through the filter of the dead boy's presence.





Hofland's design decisions, it turns out, aren't overly literal but illuminating. And if viewers like me can have a change of heart over something as peripheral as the design elements, maybe that's a nice parallel to Lindsay-Abaire's focus on upsetting all kinds of expectations. There's more than one way to grieve, after all; there's no universal test for determining who's best suited to be a parent. And grief doesn't have to mean solitary life imprisonment (though it will feel that way at first, for months and years).





Last May, I saw the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Rabbit Hole. This Actors Rep version, in its emotional dimensions, is better -- in how realistic the conversations are, in how it involves listeners, in using silence to highlight the pain that people quietly undergo before lashing out at anything or anyone who reminds them of irretrievable loss.





The best plays show us something new. Rabbit Hole, especially in this consistently affecting, sometimes funny, usually lump-in-the throat production, holds up a mirror worth looking into -- even if it takes some effort, even if it's painful.

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