Theatre review: Touching journey turns on the tears in Rabbit Hole

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 29, 2013

Review Theatre


Pangdemonium Productions

DBS Arts Centre/Last Saturday

Grief is an emotion rarely pursued without bells and whistles on stage.

And what makes Rabbit Hole such a touching journey to watch is its raw, real and understated treatment of one of the most difficult subjects of the family drama.

This cadenced script by American playwright David Lindsay-Abaire won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007, and it is an intricately wrought study of the way a family copes with loss.

The play opens in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy - parents Howie (Adrian Pang) and Becca (Janice Koh) are trying to pull their lives together following the death of their young son. Becca's sister Izzy (a delightful Seong Hui Xuan) and mother Nat (Lok Meng Chue) attempt to provide them with support, not always successfully, while a teenager (Eden Ang) connected to the death hovers on the periphery.

A domestic drama like this could have easily exploited this general aura of sadness, but you hardly feel manipulated into turning on the tears.

This is a couple trying to seal the tremendous fault lines in their lives, and those orbiting them either tiptoe around the subject, wondering which invisible lines they have crossed or attack the topic with all guns blazing. Neither works.

Director Tracie Pang pulls those emotional strings so taut they could slice through bone. Throughout the work, she demonstrates a deft sense of timing, knowing how long to pull a pregnant pause for, when an interruption should be made, and what constitutes awkwardness and discomfort.

She knows that restraint is key, and how the lightest bit of humour can make a stab of pain or sadness hurt that much more - or less. These moments of lightness help to reel back any hint of treacly sentimentality or wallowing melancholy the work could have careened into.

It helps that the cast pull their weight confidently. Pang and Koh are compellingly believable as a couple struggling to ease the blow their lives have been dealt.

Pang whips the veil from Howie's initial good-natured bluster and allows the audience a glimpse into his buried maelstrom of regret and rage; Koh brings out Becca's heartbreak with a touching vulnerability - you can almost see the cracks edged into her skin.

You know that they have relived this tragedy millions of times, analysed every split-second decision and turned over every stone of regret.

Danny's presence lingers in their house, a cosy, cream-coloured hearth designed by Philip Engleheart, and he haunts the supporting cast too. Seong, in particular, seems to have tailored herself to the perfect fit as Izzy, Becca's garrulous, wild younger sister, who ends up being a rock of encouragement.

Tracie Pang has chosen to stick closely to the script in terms of setting - it would have been difficult, almost ridiculous, to re-imagine this all-American family in any other context - which is also where consistency is key.

The weaker link here, in terms of accent work, is Lok. While she channels the tactless but tender mother figure, Nat, with aplomb, her Singaporean lilt makes her performance wobble off key. The result is jarring, but still watchable.

All the same, Rabbit Hole is a well-paced story of despair and hope. Perhaps things tie up just a bit too neatly at the end, but that is a minor quibble for a life-affirming play that gracefully sidesteps condescension and exaggeration and focuses on the honesty of making it through each day.

I brought a pack of tissues to this production. I am glad I did.