Amy Ryan, Tate Donovan, and Missy Yager in Rabbit Hole
(© Michael Lamont)
Amy Ryan, Tate Donovan, and Missy Yager in Rabbit Hole
(© Michael Lamont)
Grief, like the devastating loss that generally precedes it, is something intensely felt and carried. It is an extraordinarily personal emotion, one capable of bending and twisting the heart in ways that love cannot even imagine. In David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole, now making its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, grief is the hole that leads to a crazy, mixed-up world where nothing is as it should be.

The plot's catalyst is the accidental death of a 4-year-old boy named Danny, which has unsurprisingly taken its toll on his suburban family: his mom Becca (Amy Ryan) and dad Howie (Tate Donovan), Becca's flighty sister Izzy (Missy Yager), and their occasionally overbearing mother Nat (Joyce Van Patten). Director Carolyn Cantor has directed this talented quartet with obvious skill, but the result lacks a necessary intimacy.

Indeed, there's a kind of clinical sterility to the production that results in a kind of dramatic isolation. Yes, grief does make people feel utterly detached from the world around them. And while several months do pass in the time frame of the show -- time that is given physical shape and form by the pregnant Izzy's growing belly -- not enough seems to change. Still, there are many layers evident, and points of views examined, in Lindsay-Abaire's beautiful if slightly over-stuffed script. The language is relaxed and conversational, the insights heartbreaking, and the characters and situations are completely relatable. The death of a loved one is something no one ever wants to face, but most of us eventually must deal with it.

As lovely as the show looks, and as technically proficient as the cast clearly is, the production is a little too on the money, and the performances have been polished to a neat, high shine. Donovan has a few genuine moments early on, and Van Patten provides some needed comic relief, but Cantor keeps Ryan too closed off. In the end, she simply conveys Becca's tension without showing the essential multi-layered emotional base underneath. Only Trever O'Brien seems believably distraught as Jason, the neighborhood teen who awkwardly tries to make amends for his role in the tragedy.

Scenic designer Alexander Dodge adds to the distant feeling by giving us a spacious, well-appointed home that is immaculate from lights up to blackout. Even Danny's room looks as though the maid has just tidied up. Certainly an argument can be made for the grief-stricken Becca putting all her energy into housecleaning as a means of establishing some control in her upside-down, out-of-control life, but the feeling lingers that this family is afraid to make a mark on the world -- let alone a wall. As a result, the devastation of losing their only child misses some of its intended impact because there seems to be so little to contrast it against.

The closest we get to any emotional rough edges is the end of Act I, when Becca and Howie finally get into a screaming match over how each is handling their grief. Howie has responded by trying to keep Danny as alive as possible: he watches videos of his son at play, and he still loves the family dog, who was an innocent part of the circumstances leading to the boy's death. After Becca accidentally eliminates some of the evidence of Danny's being, he angrily accuses her of trying to erase the boy from their lives by giving away his clothes, taking his finger-paintings off the refrigerator, and removing any pictures of him.

Of course, Becca is giving the clothes to charity so something of Danny can still be used, and has carefully packed away the easily retrievable photos and artwork for protection and safekeeping -- something she feels she was ultimately unable to provide for her son. The fight should be an absolute gut-wrencher, but instead it settles for just being loud.

That pivotal scene is emblematic of the levels of intimacy that need to be better displayed to make this production of Rabbit Hole as emotionally raw, and utterly unbearable, as it should be.