Stage Review: Hopewell Navigates ‘Rabbit Hole’ with Skill

By J.E.Ballantyne Jr.
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Death, and the loss of a loved one, takes on many dimensions as everyone reacts to such an event very differently. It can be a complex set of circumstances that drives people through many emotions and in different directions.

David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole,” which opened Friday at the Hopewell Theatre, explores this situation.

Becca and Howie have recently lost their young son, Danny, after he was accidentally hit by a car while chasing his dog.

Lindsay-Abaire’s writing style pulls the audience into these characters right from the get-go. With an opening scene that belies the real meat of the play, he puts the audience at ease with some high level comedy not usually found in such shows.

Sisters Becca and Izzy are discussing Izzy’s night out where she hauls off and socks a woman, in what Becca terms a “bar fight,” for screaming at her for no known reason. Izzy, played by Wendy Wygant, takes great pleasure in describing every detail of the encounter, while Becca (Stephanie Chavara) chides her for her behavior.

Wygant presents a feisty and spirited woman who isn’t taking anything from anybody, even if maybe she has encroached on the other woman’s man. Wygant gives the character a lively feel and her spirit and enthusiasm permeates every inch of the character. She punctuates the scene by telling Becca that she is also pregnant, something that doesn’t go over very well with Becca, at least, not initially.

Wygant is fun to watch. She has a gleam in her eye that makes her just a bit unpredictable and she smoothly glides between both comedic as well as dramatic moments.

Chavara’s Becca also presents an initial view that steers the audience away from what is coming. Becca is a much more complex character than Izzy and has to navigate a mountain of various emotions and feelings. Chavara handles the role so seamlessly that she could very well be not acting at all. Yes, every actor pulls on emotions from incidents in their own lives, but Chavara makes her Becca a real person that seems to be living through her grief for the first time.

Becca’s grief is so intense that she has not been able to face losing her son. This drives her to remove any memories of Danny that are in the house – save for his bedroom that seems left exacting how it was when the accident took place.

Chavara makes Becca’s emotional cavern so deep that the audience is also hanging on and feeling every twinge of despair that mounts up in Becca. But Chavara also has some moments, especially with mom and sister Izzy, who show Chavara’s comedy ability as well. Versatility is the key for this role and Chavara has a firm grip on it.

Brandon Donaldson plays husband, Howie. Unlike Becca, Howie has a better handle on the situation. He is grieving, yes, but unlike Becca, he wants to see memories of his son rather than casting them to the winds. Donaldson gives Howie a different depth of emotion than Becca. He tries to be strong for his wife but has to tip-toe through Becca’s emotional mine field.

Donaldson’s first appearance seemed a little off. Opening night jitters perhaps put a stiffness in his first few moments on stage. Once things got rolling, however, Donaldson’s experience took over and you could see the multi-layered character that he was. Being that Howie and Becca are dealing with their son’s death differently, it produces conflict in their relationship.

Chavara and Donaldson make for a very believable couple going through a difficult time. Their exchanges are sharp and their emotions collide on several fronts. They make for a married couple who know each other very well but, at the same time, are strangers when dealing with this new aspect of their life.

Molly Galano gives another first rate performance as Nat, mother to Izzy and Becca. Galano never disappoints and although much of her character is more on the comedic side, Galano gets her turn to dig into the emotions of grief and despair.

She can get caught up in a tirade about the deaths of all of the Kennedy’s, but she shines in a scene with Becca in Danny’s bedroom. Becca asks if these feelings ever go away. Galano’s Nat describes the progression of grief, and dealing with it, better than I have ever heard it described by anyone.

And since everyone in the audience has had to deal with the death of, at least, one loved one or close friend, it is a scene that should bring a tear to the eye of the most hardened scrooge. Portrayals like this is what makes Galano the most sought after character actress in town.

A small but challenging role in the show, Jason, is played by Ethan Rodriguez. Jason is the driver of the car that hit Danny. Anxious to get closure for himself and also to help heal his grief, he seeks a meeting with Howie and Becca. Howie is indifferent to the idea even to the point of not attending. But Becca is more open to it.

Rodriguez presents a tortured character who is holding his emotions inside. He wants to make his peace with the family but is awkward about how to go about it. When the meeting with Becca takes place, Rodriguez is almost a little too stiff and apprehensive. He misses some great opportunities to show a little more human side to the character by keeping his emotional state on a one dimensional level. He still sells the scene and the character well, but could have gotten more mileage out of it with a wider range and different levels of his emotion during the scene.

Director Nick Mulichak has put a masterpiece on the Hopewell stage. His casting choices were right and his direction helped the actors to dig into these characters making them real people going through emotions that everyone can identify with.

Set design by Rosalyn Blystone and Nick Mulichak made good use of the Hopewell stage. From a kitchen, with a refrigerator and microwave, to a living room and an upstairs bedroom, it was well designed, balanced and uncluttered.

Death is never easy to deal with. It is a roller coaster that you never really get off of. “Rabbit Hole” helps to define those emotions but at the same time it offers up light comedic moments that intersperse the bad times.

Life keeps going. Handling that life can be hard but it does become more tolerable with good times outlasting the bad times and the love of family keeping everyone together. If you want to laugh, or shed a tear, and remember a loved one in the process, catch “Rabbit Hole” at the Hopewell.

“Rabbit Hole” continues June 15, 21, 22 at 7:30 p.m.; June 23 at 2 p.m.

Pictured at top: Stephanie Chavara and Brandon Donaldson in a scene from Hopewell Theatre’s production of “Rabbit Hole.”

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