"Rabbit Hole" is as close to unbearable as you can imagine. That's what makes it work.
Anyone who read about the play's Broadway run last season, which brought it five Tony nominations, knows that it's about a family grieving the death of a child. But the starkness of that description cannot begin to convey the acuity and power of David Lindsay-Abaire's play, now making its Boston debut at the Huntington Theatre Company.
Describing the plot also threatens to put "Rabbit Hole" into Lifetime Movie territory, where it absolutely does not belong. What keeps it from being a mere tearjerker is its refusal to ooze sentiment, to force resolution, or to make any of its characters less complicated than they are.
At the center is Becca, the tightly armored mother of the 4-year-old Danny, whose accidental death occurred eight months before the play begins. Orbiting her in their own hermetic capsules of grief are her husband, Howie; her mother, Nat; and her younger sister, Izzy. Each mourns in a different way, and each can't help seeing the others' ways as wrong -- even deliberately, hurtfully so.
Thus every word that anyone utters can be taken amiss; every line cuts two ways. This makes for surprising moments of light humor -- you'd never expect to laugh so much at such a sad play. And yet it also makes the atmosphere in this chic suburban home (designed with ingenious grace by James Noone) so heavy that you wonder how anyone can breathe.
Such a balance of helium and lead is incredibly difficult to achieve, much less to sustain over two acts and nearly two hours. And yet John Tillinger directs his cast with such delicacy and grace that, somehow, the complex and contradictory layers of emotion and meaning maintain just the right weight.
Slowly and almost imperceptibly, too, the weight shifts in just the right way. The opening scene between responsible Becca and flaky Izzy starts off light, with an amused and mutual incomprehension that will be familiar to any pair of mismatched sisters.
Inevitably, the tone gets darker and deeper, diving down through levels of grief and misunderstanding until, gasping, we have joined all these sad people on the ocean floor. But then -- and it's hard to say just how -- things lighten. Not a lot; not in a Hallmark way. But it's enough to let us see that maybe, after all, there's a way for them -- or for anyone who mourns -- to keep breathing.
The Huntington's cast negotiates every shift with subtlety and skill. Donna Bullock's Becca uncoils slowly and painfully, with the occasional blind viciousness of a wounded animal; Jordan Lage's Howie seems at first affable and bluff, but we come to see him as no more whole, just broken in a different way.
Maureen Anderman may be a bit too polished and taut for the earthy Nat -- it's hard to imagine her playing bingo -- but she builds a lovely complexity into her relationships with her children. Geneva Carr makes Izzy just dizzy enough, and Troy Deutsch, though he looks old for the part, brings a heartbreaking awkwardness to Jason, the guilt-ridden teenage driver who comes seeking -- what? Their forgiveness, maybe, or their fury, or something less easily named.
That's what "Rabbit Hole" does. With terrible clarity, it reminds us that some terrible events are too complicated ever to be made entirely clear.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.