Finding light in the Rabbit Hole

A tragic play on losing a child has made actors Janice Koh and Adrian Pang show more affection towards their children

Actress Janice Koh and theatre power couple Adrian and Tracie Pang have taken to hugging their children more and checking on them after they fall asleep at night.

Koh, 39, says with some incredulity: "At night, I make sure that they're breathing - I haven't done that in years, not since they were about two years old."

She and her husband, Singapore Tourism Board chief Lionel Yeo, 40, have two sons aged seven and nine.

Actor Adrian Pang, 47, who has two sons aged 13 and 14, chimes in: "If there's any occasion to tell them off, 10 minutes later, I'm sayang-ing them (sayang means to love or to dote on in Malay). There's no putting them to bed angry."

This recent overflow of affection for their children stems from the fact that Koh and Pang are starring as a couple who have lost their child in the play Rabbit Hole, which opens at the DBS Arts Centre on April 25. It is theatre company Pangdemonium's first production of the year.

The play by American playwright David Lindsay-Abaire revolves around parents Howie (Pang) and Becca (Koh) who are struggling to come to terms with their loss. This production also stars Lok Meng Chue, 57, as Becca's mother, Seong Hui Xuan, 26, as Becca's sister, and Eden Ang, 26, as a teenager involved in the accident.

Director Tracie Pang, 44, who is married to Adrian, feels that losing a child is a parent's "worst nightmare". She first read the script of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play about three years ago.

She says: "The fact that we are aware that there are friends or people who have lost a child just makes us realise the reality of the situation. I found it extremely emotional to read and quite hard to get through because it's a painful story.

"For the three of us, it definitely does come very close to home. But because of that, I think it's something we want to tell very honestly and not just kind of use it as an exercise to explore an emotion."

Simply wallowing in the grief and the sadness of the play, they feel, would not do the script justice and would be almost exploitative. They are hoping that the story they tell on stage will be one brimming with hope and affirmation instead.

The creative team also met a group of parents from a child bereavement support group here to find out a little bit more about their experiences. It was a moving encounter for them.

Adrian says: "The story explores the survivors of the trauma because those left behind have to carry on with their lives. Life has to go on, so how do you go on to surmount this huge thing and make the rest of your life meaningful? It's about embracing the rest of your life and appreciating what you still have."

The Pangs had watched the 2010 film adaptation of the play, starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, and found the original script "way better".

Tracie is choosing to focus on the moments of light-heartedness in the script: "It's very important that they can find good things in life in order to want to keep going on - in the conversations that they have, in the way they approach each situation.

"It's about trying to find the lightness in the piece and the natural humour of human beings in any situation that kind of makes you smile through your tears. I think without that, the play would be very depressing."

On their part, the actors have been trying very hard to rein in their emotions for the play. Koh recalls how the actors had to pass a box of tissues around the table during their first reading - even before they started rehearsing on stage.

Koh says, with a laugh: "The playwright himself, at the end of the script, has a one-page note that states, quite literally, 'Thou shalt not cry'."

Adrian jumps in: "If it doesn't say the characters cry - do not cry."

They are each allowed to cry only once, a release which they describe as "cathartic". But so far, the no-crying rule has not quite been working out.

Both actors say, simultaneously: "It's tough."