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BWW Reviews: Keegan's Take on Award-Winning RABBIT HOLE is Ultimately Engaging

David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole is just one of those plays that is quite hard to resist. It has all the makings of a hit - an exploration of love, loss and family that everyone can relate to in one way or another, juicy roles for local acting talent, a compelling story, and a well-written script. The original production at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2006 extended numerous times and was rewarded with several Tony Award nominations. It won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, spawned a Hollywood movie several years later starring Nicole Kidman (in a role for which Cynthia Nixon won the Tony Award on Broadway), and has been well-received in regional theatre productions throughout the United States. So it's not surprising that the ambitious Keegan Theatre decided to bring the angst-ridden family drama to the DC theatergoing community as one of its final productions of the season.

While there are a few missteps in Keegan's production - some uneven acting and a few curious pacing issues - it's ultimately an attention-grabbing one that does a lot of justice to the rich material. I could go on and on about how the design elements are among the most professional and refined I've seen at Keegan - particularly 4Point Design Collective's set that perfectly captures an upper-middle class modern house in the New York City suburbs - but let's just get to the heart of what makes this show one to see.

Under the direction of resident company member Kerri Rambow, Susan Marie Rhea gives a phenomenal performance as Becca, a mother still reeling from the unexpected and accidental loss of her four year-old son Danny almost a year ago. Her grief is taking a toll on her marriage to her husband Howie (Ms. Rhea's real-life husband Mark A. Rhea) who is dealing with the loss in his own way, her relationship with her outspoken mother Nat (an effectively comedic Linda High) who knows what it's like to lose a son, her free-spirited sister Izzy (Shayna Blass), and her outlook on life and what it all means. An encounter with high school student and aspiring science fiction writer Jason (Patrick Joy), who was driving the car that hit Danny, helps Becca understand where to go from here.

Ms. Rhea, who has given many exceptional performances at Keegan, rises to the occasion and then some. Giving what I consider to be one of the best acting performances this season, she embodies a grieving mother from start to finish without crossing over into melodramatic territory. Moments of anger, suddenly become moments of sadness, depression, and sometimes even a bit of joy. She's subtle without being too internal and emotional without going too far over the edge so that the scene becomes unintentionally campy. She's always present and effective even in the many silent moments. Likewise, her chemistry with fellow company members - a necessity in a family-centric drama - makes her portrayal all the more believable and resonant.

Although Mr. Rhea is a bit less successful as husband/father Howie - he's prone to either simply scrunching up his face to show anger or despair in tense moments or giving an otherwise far too internal performance - he does have several moments that effectively capture the tense situation his character encounters. One is a tender one as he watches an old home movie of his son while the other is explosive when he meets face to face with young Jason.

Among the supporting players, Blass is the most effective and believable. As Becca's younger sister, Izzy too is going through a major life-change, but she deals with her reality with a mix of realistic compassion, sarcasm, and wit. At her best when playing off of Ms. Rhea and Ms. High, she's great at capturing the character that's most unlikely to be a grounding force, but ultimately is the one who pulls everyone back into reality. As a recent college graduate who's mostly done musical comedy, Blass proves she has the acting chops that will take her far.

Joy is appropriately awkward as a teenage boy who's not exactly sure how to deal with the parents who lost a child, but feels an enormous responsibility for their loss. Though he has the teenage mannerisms down-pat, his acting performance is ultimately less than effective. What should be crucial scenes - Jason's reveal about his science fiction story he dedicated to Danny's memory, in particular - ultimately fall flat and are mostly unaffecting (save for Ms. Rhea's reaction to the reveal) due to his propensity to simply recite his lines rather than internalize their meaning. That being said, he's a young performer still in high school who's likely to sharpen his acting skills with time because some of the ingredients are there.

Likewise, though Rambow directs the show with tenderness and care and wisely never allows it to become too campy or over-the-top, there are several unfortunate pacing issues. The final moments of act I and the first half of act 2 tend to drag, which result in the overall emotional impact being less than it would be if properly paced. An unfortunately long intermission at over 30 minutes - an annoying, chronic problem at Keegan apparently thanks to a deficiency of restrooms that will hopefully be rectified in its upcoming renovation - also brings the audience out of the moment for far too long and makes the pacing issues once the show begins again even more pronounced.

I admit I was more than slightly annoyed at the time spent sitting in the theatre coming in at 2 hours and 45 minutes - thanks to the usual late start and long intermission - when there's a little less than two hours of actual play. However, the positives of this production outweigh the negative ones. Ms. Rhea's performance, in particular, makes the wait mostly worth it.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with an additional 15-30 minute intermission.

Rabbit Hole plays at Keegan Theatre - 1742 Church Street, NW in Washington, DC - through July 21, 2013. Tickets can be purchased online.

Photo: Mark A. Rhea as Howie and Susan Marie Rhea as Becca (C. Stanley Photography)


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