REVIEW: Haley Johnson leads a stellar cast for Vintage’s ‘Rabbit Hole’

It’s weighty, it’s tragic and it’s one of the most compelling productions to hit an Aurora stage this year. That’s due in no small part to nearly half a dozen prodigious performances that shine and reflect in almost perfect concert with one another.

AURORA | If they’re not already, Kleenex should be receiving royalties from David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole.”

The beautifully crestfallen story penned by the Brooklyn-based playwright requires the help of an absorbent square of cloth several times throughout its two acts of gorgeous familial tragedy.

And the current production of the fantastically forlorn tale at the Vintage Theatre is no exception.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007, “Rabbit Hole” meanders a tangled web of emotional arterials that become pockmarked with signposts for  loss, love and the impossibly colossal gamut of touchstones in between. It’s weighty, it’s tragic and it’s one of the most compelling productions to hit an Aurora stage this year. That’s due in no small part to nearly half a dozen prodigious performances that shine and reflect in almost perfect concert with one another.

The action centers on Becca (Haley Johnson) and Howie (Marc Stith), a woebegone couple broken by the recent death of their 4-year-old son, Danny, who was struck and killed by a teen driver after chasing the family dog into the street. The horrifying loss results in a slow deterioration of their trust and patience with one another as the silence around the house morphs into the deafening swan song of their relationship. Cracks in the foundation steadily manifest throughout the performance while specters of a former life — home videos, fingerprints on the walls, toys left in the couch cushions — linger.

Haley Johnson and John Hauser
Haley Johnson and Deb Persoff
Deb Persoff, Haley Johnson and Maggie Stacy
Haley Johnson and Marc Stith

But, somehow, the show manages to apply an intoxicating gloss of humor on top of an ocean of pain. Measured pinches of laughter — usually compliments of the zany duo of Izzy (Maggy Stacy) and her heartwarmingly neurotic mother (Deborah Persoff) — are expertly injected and propel the roller coaster plot up peaks and out of troughs. By way of salty quips and quibbles, the comedic pair proves that Abraham Lincoln wasn’t quite so honest — you’re always old enough to cry and you’re never too hurt to laugh. Persoff’s tirade against the Kennedy clan’s curse and Stacy’s description of her new musician boyfriend are particularly potent har-har-inducing moments. A piece of creme caramel that shot out of Stacy’s mouth during last Friday night’s performance during the latter scene made for an especially memorable instance of well-timed yet unintentional comic relief.

Apart from Persoff and Stacy, director Bernie Cardell has created something special with an incredibly tight and stellar five-person cast. “Rabbit Hole” demands a chemistry and an ease among cast members, and Cardell and artistic director Craig Bond curate that to the fullest extent.

Stith as the even-keeled (if not slightly sleazy) Howie quickly proves he is adept in the art of simultaneously eliciting the audience’s sympathy and scorn. When not at the epicenter of a scene, he acts as a verbal referee between two disparate sisters and a mother who is so clearly trying to cope with a crippling loss of her own. John Hauser as the accidental grim reaper that is Jason also manages to deliver a handful of wallops in his limited scenes, emitting an air of contempt and compassion that nicely mirrors Stith’s aura.

But it’s Johnson as the fragile yet tempestuous Becca who carries the brunt of the production’s emotional payload. Johnson, who wowed Vintage faithfuls in last spring’s staging of “‘Night, Mother,” manages to recapture much of what made last year’s show such a lip-quivering success. She exquisitely finds the appropriate balance between appearing outwardly calm with deadpan “alrights” and inwardly wrestling a waterspout of grief. While calmly serving creme caramel and folding the clothes of her dead son, she subtly but forcefully screams in anguish through her blistering eyes and stern brows.

Scenic designer Douglas Clarke and stage manager Kortney Hanson have clearly mastered how to manipulate the Vintage’s bijou stage. Though only a little bigger than a Greyhound bus, the Vintage stage team adeptly leverages the available space, making all in attendance feel like they are a member of this shattered family without being overly immersive.

“Rabbit Hole” is a torrid lesson in 21st century tragedy, but it isn’t an emotional iron maiden. Though there is a steady flow of cheek-hooking plot points — Izzy’s pregnancy, Howie’s intrigue, Nat’s former loss — the production is an evenly baked, simmering cauldron of emotion, and a welcome respite from the widening canon of shock-and-awe spectacles. For something real, something raw and something that forces viewers to peer through the kaleidoscope of emotions, don’t miss this rare and necessary production at The Vintage. Just don’t forget to bring the Kleenex.

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