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Story of ultimate loss draws tears from audience

By David Gordon, News Editor

On stage, the tears don't flow as copiously as you'd expect in David Lindsay-Abaire's "Rabbit Hole," a bleak drama about a set of parents dealing with the death of their four-year-old son. As an audience member, if you didn't find yourself shedding at least a few tears during Steven Spera's production of the 2007 drama Pulitzer Prize winner for the Spectrum Players, then you have no soul.

This study of the most horrific grief imaginable starred Cynthia Nixon, John Slattery, Tyne Daly, Mary Catherine Garrison and John Gallagher, Jr., in its premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club. While the material was no doubt foreign to that cast, Nixon and Slattery were parents (Slattery's five-year-old voiced the deceased child, in fact), and could tap into the darkest realms of imagination to pull out convincing performances.
In a University setting, Lauren Cook, Adam Griffith, Mary St. Angelo, Chelsea Frati and Ryan Smith couldn't be more disconnected from the material. That is why Spera's deeply moving and honest staging is such a feat.

Eight months have passed since Becca (Cook) and Howie (Griffith) lost their five-year-old Danny (voiced by Dash Alschuler-Pierce) when neighborhood teen Jason Willett (Smith) accidentally hit him with his car. As the play opens, Becca is folding the child's clothing to give to Good Will when she learns her sister Izzy (Frati) is expecting a baby of her own.

Deafening silences are far too omnipresent in their Larchmont, New York home (the set, an expansive, multi-level manse, is designed by James Monahan). Friends have stopped calling, sexual intimacy is lost. All that's left are the reminders of the thing that made Becca and Howie's lives worth-living. While her idea is to get rid of any trace of her son (down to the dog that he chased into the street when the accident occurred), his is to seek grief counseling and, every now and then, get lost in home movies.

Having seen the opening and closing performances, the most interesting aspect was how clearly evolved the characters became between Thursday and Sunday. Griffith found ways to dig deeper under Howie's skin, making his breakdown over the tapes even more powerful by the last show. Frati, as the crass, limelight-hogging Izzy, forever the wannabe punk princess, had a number of show-stealing moments, one of which included a talking Cookie Monster doll. St. Angelo, as Izzy and Becca's mother, and Smith, were too physically mannered (she had a slightly labored walk; he constantly wrung his hands) for such a naturalistic piece, but were believable in delivery. Smith was still wringing his hands on Sunday, but St. Angelo found ways to convey "old" without physicality.

Thursday evening, Cook was uneven, still trying to find her sea legs. Often dressed in frumpy pajamas (costumes designed by Lily Moore) and fuzzy pink slippers around the house, she struck near-perfect notes in certain scenes, when Howie learns that Becca accidentally (?) recorded over a home movie, the other when Becca and Jason have a conversation and she breaks down (in this scene, also set at home, she was dressed up and in heels). By Sunday, she was a volcano, delivering one of the most emotional and genuine performances I've seen at Hofstra.

The deadly silence returns in the final moments of the play, the rumination on "where do we go from here?" Nobody knows. Cook grabs Griffith's hand and they stare, into the vast nothingness that has become their lives, evoking the artist Edward Hopper. It's clear they didn't know. The honesty was miraculous.

Seize the day like slave revolutionist John Brown