Theater production is nothing if not gambling, and Apple Hill Playhouse wins big with David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole. It's a realistic drama with touches of comedy, grappling with that touchiest and trickiest subject: death. There's nothing treacly in this 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner. Director Kevin Saunders delivers a powerful production that hits the heart as well as the head, an emotional roller coaster with a whisper of hope.
The primary story follows two generations of a family several months into suffering the loss of its youngest generation, a lively 4-year-old boy who's at the center of the play, but never embodied on stage. Among the many threads of this plotline are the relationships of spouses, siblings, parents and small children, and parents with adult children, as well as the grief for lost family members and the excited expectancy toward new ones.
There are many hard questions and few answers, let alone easy ones. At times, Rabbit Hole is emotionally raw and cathartic. Yet familial frictions often spark a laugh: cheerful or rueful, and many shades in between.
Much of the credit goes to a remarkably tight and polished cast, with two solid Equity pros and two experienced and talented "amateurs." (I hate to call them that, except in the technical sense.
Rachel Downs tackles the tricky, and prickly, Becca, who left a successful career to become a mother and is mourning the loss both of her own identity and of her only child. Trying to support Becca through her distress, her mom, Nat, is as much hindrance as help, a comic figure with a comfortably maternal center. Veteran actress Susie McGregor-Laine packs all the nuances into a cohesive and credible whole.
Apple Hill company regular Katie Kerr more than holds her own as Becca's sister Izzy (yes, she starts off rather ditzy), a mix of youthful ebullience and imprudence growing into maturity. Opposite Downs, as hubby Howie, R. Mark Cox credibly and creditably provides the emotional fireworks spurting from a restive masculinity. And real-life high school student Stephen Young completes the cast as tightly wound and guilt-ridden high school student Jason.
The biggest hand, however, should probably go to artistic director/executive producer Pat Beyer and whoever in the company backed her choice of such a daring, ambitious work, far beyond the company's usual frothy comedy in a barn. As far as appeasing an appetite for solid theater, Apple Hill admirably chewed as much as it bit off. The gamble is whether box-office traffic will reflect the quality on the stage.
Rabbit Hole continues through Oct. 9. Apple Hill Playhouse, 275 Manor Road, Delmont. 724-468-5050 or www.applehillplayhouse.org