Friday, August 19, 2011

Rabbit Hole is a Rare Treat

By James E. Trainor III

Cedar Rapids - Peter Brook said he could take any empty space and call it a bare stage. Urban Theatre Project brings this claim to life in a very practical way. As Cedar Rapids' "gypsy theatre," UTP will create theatre anywhere someone will let them land for a few weeks. The aesthetic dispenses with all the spectacle of a proscenium stage and a dazzling lighting rig, focusing instead on the basics: actors performing powerful scripts with intention and clarity.

For Rabbit Hole, the Cook House has offered to be UTP's home. It's quite a home, too; a beautiful 7-bedroom mansion built in 1915. The large living room on the ground floor fills in for the home of the fictional Becca and Howie, and if you happen to like the surroundings when you visit them, you're in luck: the property is on the market.

Leaving aside the novelty of combining an open house with a night of engaging theatre, the atmosphere of the Cook house is ideal for the very level realism that characterizes this production. The acting, direction, costumes and props are straight-forward, under-emphasized and naturalistic - often painfully so. Also, the open house works itself into Rabbit Hole's story: Becca and Howie are also selling their house.

They've put their house on the market because Becca (Leslie Charipar) can no longer cope with the daily reminders of their dead son, Danny. Howie (Jason Alberty) is reluctant at first but goes along with the plan. Danny was four when he died in a car accident, and each partner is struggling with grief in a very different way. They try to keep their marriage intact despite the shocking blow. They have support from family, however: Nat, Becca's mother (Cherryl Moon Thomason) is on-hand to offer support and advice - whether it's wanted or not. Izzy, Becca's sister (Sarah Jarmon), reminds us that life goes on in the face of loss: she's having a unplanned baby with her boyfriend, which causes some tension between the sisters.

The final character is Jason (Nick Ostrem), the teenager who hit Danny with his car. He is very contrite, and is dealing with the shock the only way he knows how: he writes a science-fiction story and dedicates it to Danny. The gesture is the beginning of the crack in Becca's armor, and she begins to open up and express herself. The relationship between Becca and Jason is characteristic of the warmth and compassion in David Lindsay-Abaire's somewhat dark script, as two strangers on opposite ends of a life-changing incident try to be there for each other.

The show is expertly acted, with all the nuance and realism a naturalistic script deserves. The show is slow and takes a while to build, but the actors are with it the whole while, developing the relationships between each other, settling in and living the whole story. For a piece as emotional as this one, the characters have to be real people, and this company, under Angie Toomsen's direction, does a phenomenal job of fleshing them out. It's a rare treat to see such talented actors focus their skills on a script like this.

Leslie Charipar is strong as Becca. She is very stiff and reserved at the beginning, as if she is afraid what she might say if she truly allows herself to express her grief. She creates a great deal of tension in the early scenes, especially when the others are offering to share her burden and she won't budge. When Becca is retreating into herself, becoming stubborn and vicious, Charipar vigorously pushes the energy of the piece forward. When Becca starts to heal a bit, especially in the second act, we see the humor and compassion that makes Becca a truly sympathetic character.

Her relationship with Jason Alberty as Howie is at the core of Rabbit Hole's success. These two are easily believable as a married couple; they've taken the discussions and arguments penned so carefully by Lindsay-Abaire and given them a lot of life. They trust each other as scene partners and inform each others' characters: a look from Howie tells us more about Becca than a monologue of backstory, and vice versa. The result is an almost magical realism: sitting five feet away from the action, set so appropriately in a real living room, one almost has the impulse to jump in, to tell Becca to lighten up a bit, or remind Howie to give her some space.

It's not that often one gets to see Alberty in a dramatic role, and with a strong script like this, it's definitely something to see. He's very down-to-earth, very contained, and when the anger begins to boil over in later scenes, it comes from a very natural place. He's also a great scene partner and listens very well on stage.

Sarah Jarmon is equally amazing as Izzy. Though the first scene takes its time establishing the relationship, the connection between Jarmon and Charipar is very real. Jarmon is also great at listening to her scene partners, and her range of facial and vocal expression is very creative and endearing. Izzy is an easily likable character, rough around the edges but ready to take her role as a new mother seriously. When the whole family gets together, she fits right in as both sister and daughter, and adds a lot to the realism of the piece.

Cherryl Moon Thomason is very likable as Nat, the practical but compassionate mother to Becca and Izzy. She also lost a son, and tries to share her experience with Becca, but Becca, at first, is not willing to listen. Nat is relentless in her first scenes, dispensing slightly tipsy wisdom. Thomason's job is to come on and open a window for the undercurrent of dread that has chilled the last few scenes, and she does a terrific job. Again, the company is working quite well together: Thomason talks on, driving the action, picking at scabs that haven't healed, the other members of the cast responding silently but with great attention to the stakes. In later scenes, Nat and Becca come to terms with their mutual grief, and these are quite lovely.

Nick Ostrem rounds out the cast as Jason. Ostrem may not be as experienced as the other members of the cast, but he holds his own with very energetic scene partners such as Alberty and Charipar. Jason is subdued and contrite for much of the play, but when Becca agrees to see him, Ostrem wakes up a little bit: Jason explains the scientific basis for his fantastic story and we see the excitable teenager in him. We also see Becca's hope revive: Ostrem and Charipar share the energy in this scene quite well, and it's an awkward but touching encounter.

This is a hard-working cast that brings a lot of skill to the stage, and director Angie Toomsen knows it. It is clear that she has led them to opening night with commitment and respect, trusting in their abilities but pushing them for their very best in each scene. There isn't really a moment in this production where the bottom drops out and we see actors struggling to pick up the thread. That sounds like it should be taken for granted, but it shouldn't: what I'm talking about is absolute attention to the story and to each other - the kind of focused intent in performance that makes an imaginary dead toddler a tangible presence in the audience's lives. That sort of thing is great acting: invisible acting, acting that looks and sounds like just talking, and it takes a lot of work to get it to seem so seamless.

Toomsen and company have spend a lot of time and considerable talent bringing a really good story to the stage. Lindsay-Abaire's script is a well-expressed exploration of grief, and though it's very dark at times, it's also humorous and truly human. The structure of the play is that of a Greek tragedy flipped upside-down; the characters start at the bottom, and must find their way out of the rabbit hole of grief. It's a long journey from the slow and heavy tones of dread at the beginning of the piece to the comparatively lighter scenes of compassion and acceptance at the end, and Toomsen doesn't rush it. The cast, and the audience, are totally with her, and the result is a very moving night of theatre.

There's still time to see this show: it's running two weekends and it's only $10. I strongly urge you to look here here and find out more. It's not that often you get so much theatrical talent in one place, and so carefully and passionately employed. It's one of the best types of dramatic theatre: a simple but meaningful story, simply but meaningfully told, by artists who throw the weight of their experience and attention into creating something beautiful. Go see it.

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