The Palo Alto Players' production of "Rabbit Hole" by David Lindsay-Abaire is overflowing with grief but, perhaps surprisingly, this is not a depressing play. There's tremendous emotion, and tears are most definitely earned. But the play is so well written and the production so strong that the sadness of the story is tempered by the triumph of the show itself.
These days, when the simple act of turning on the news reveals devastation on an unimaginable scale, why would potential audience members want to go see a play — even a Pulitzer Prize-winner like "Rabbit Hole" — about a sad family attempting to deal with the loss of a young child?
The answer is simple: A piece of art, which this show unquestionably is, leads us into group catharsis through beauty, insight and, in this case, some well-earned pathos.
Under the astutely sympathetic direction of Marilyn Langbehn, the Palo Alto Players cast delivers performances of the highest caliber, but there's really no other choice with this material. In other hands, the story of a couple whose 4-year-old son was accidentally struck and killed by a high-school driver could be mawkish and sentimental.
We've all seen the made-for-TV grief-a-paloozas that fill Lifetime and other such channels. "Rabbit Hole" avoids those usual tear-jerking traps through sharp writing, incredible depth of feeling and unvarnished honesty.
Langbehn and her cast rise to the challenge of Lindsay-Abaire's play, and the result is an immersive theatrical experience that is as pleasurable as it is painful. The actors are sure-footed and remarkably restrained, so it's almost impossible not to get caught up in the aching complexity of the story.
This is a story that is, primarily, an exploration of grief and no one really grieves in the same way. Becca (Shannon Warrick) and her husband, Howie (Earle Carlson), have both lost their only child, but their paths from that loss are startlingly different.
Their marriage appears to be functioning, just as their lovely home (beautiful, understated set by Patrick Klein) appears to be completely normal. But as Becca's sister, Izzy (Kate McGrath), notes, there's that "weirdness" hanging in the air.
Of course there's weirdness. That's the function of grief: It takes everything normal and completely subverts it. Awkward silences, unexpected rages, disrupted friendships and a near-constant sense of unreality become the norm. People's lives become so consumed with navigating the foreign, constantly shifting landscape of grief that there's barely room for anything — or anyone — else.
That's where we find Becca and Howie: together but completely alone, even when they're with family like Izzy and Becca's mom, Nat (Jackie O'Keefe).
"You're not in a better place than I am, Howie," Becca charges. "You're just in a different place."
There are occasional moments of normalcy, like a small celebration for Izzy's birthday, but then Nat rambles on about the Kennedy family curse and moves quickly on to how Aristotle Onassis likely died from grief after his son's death in an airplane accident. Suddenly the conversation turns personal and painful because it's all about what is unspoken most of the time: the beautiful child who is no longer running around the house.
Another major theme of "Rabbit Hole" is comfort. While her family members seem to take comfort — from a support group, from a new boyfriend, from home videos — Becca can find no relief from her loss. In Warrick's stirring performance, the void in Becca's life echoes through everything she does and says.
Her most intriguing connection — and her closest thing to comfort — doesn't come from her husband, who fears that as she attempts to move on, she'll simply erase their son's memory. No, it comes from a surprising source: the high-school student who accidentally killed her son.
Jason (Zachary Freier-Harrison) wants — needs — desperately to talk to Becca and Howie. He's caught up in their drama whether they like it or not, and things are not going especially well for him, either.
Freier-Harrison is in only a few scenes, but this Palo Alto High School sophomore gives a performance far beyond his years. He and Warrick are astonishing together and take an already extraordinary play to a surprisingly real, undeniably moving, emotional level.
Each of the actors has a moment or two that surges with emotion. Carlson explodes when his tangible connections to his son begin to disappear. O'Keefe offers counsel based on a lifetime experience with loss, and McGrath offers some acerbic humor to lighten a heavy load.
On Broadway, Cynthia Nixon of "Sex and the City" fame played Becca to great acclaim (and a Tony Award), and we can look forward to a movie version starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart.
Celebrity flash aside, it's hard to imagine actors making a more personal connection than those on stage at the Lucie Stern Theatre. They give brave performances in a brutal but empathetic play. If you want to know what happens when art jolts you into a fresh sense of appreciation of perspective, take a trip down this "Rabbit Hole" and find out.
What: "Rabbit Hole" by David Lindsay-Abaire, presented by Palo Alto Players
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through Feb. 1 with 8 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. matinees on Sundays
Cost: Tickets are $30 general and $26 for seniors and students on Thursdays and Sundays.
Info: Go to http://www.paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.