Good Grief 

Town Hall's Rabbit Hole grapples with loss.

Clive Worsley's first season as artistic director at Town Hall Theatre Company of Lafayette was mostly programmed by his predecessor Kevin Morales before the latter headed off for New York.

Rabbit Hole, David Lindsay-Abaire's 1997 Pulitzer Prize winning examination of grief, is the kind of challenging drama that Morales always said that the company should be doing. He was known for making quirky choices in his seasons, placing the hard-hitting Wit alongside Gypsy and a superhero-themed Macbeth. For this season Morales had originally programmed two Lindsay-Abaire plays in a row, with the amnesia comedy Fuddy Meers slated to follow Rabbit Hole, but Worsley opted to replace Fuddy with the female version of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple in late March — which he'll direct around the same time Morales comes back to helm Contra Costa Musical Theatre's Evita.

Packed with uncomfortable moments and unexpected humor, the sharp script centers around a young couple who recently lost their son Danny in an auto accident. Director Susannah Martin stages a solid production that nicely captures the mind of the play, if not always its heart. The creative team is mostly new to Town Hall, largely from risk-taking companies on the other side of the tunnel such as Shotgun Players and foolsFURY, but it's hard to watch the play without a growing sense of how much more could be done with the roles.

Ryan O'Donnell is perfectly amiable as mild-mannered husband Howie, whose grief is subsumed by his need to comfort his bitter, brittle wife Becca. Howie takes some comfort in reminders of Danny, while Becca just wants to hide them away. O'Donnell's understated performance is more convincing as the gentle peacemaker than when Howie gets upset, because there hasn't necessarily been a sense that the emotions that pour out have been present all along.

Csilla Horvath-Lewis's overstated Becca has the opposite problem. A look of dread nearing panic is etched on her face half the time, her performance pitched so high that it has nowhere to go when the going gets rougher. She's also a pill and a scold, and the fact that Becca's supposed to be difficult to be around doesn't make her any easier to take.

Emily Morrison is a breath of fresh air as Becca's free-spirit sister Izzy, a live wire who becomes increasingly fidgety in the stifling air of the house. Sally Hogarty is chirpy and animated as Becca's mother Nat, running around making oversized gestures and blithely rattling on about rich people dying in plane crashes and skiing accidents. Liam Callister is appropriately earnest with a dash of adolescent cluelessness as Jason, the teenager who accidentally hit Danny with his car.

Of course, you don't go to a Lafayette community theater with the same expectations that you might have had driving down to see San Jose Rep's acclaimed 2007 production of the same play. It's refreshing to see a play like this in Contra Costa now and then instead of Neil Simon or Agatha Christie.

The trouble is, the lack of nuance in the performances draws attention to the mechanics of the script. The play sometimes becomes a kind of treatise on grieving, exploring not only the various ways that different people need to mourn but also the way people around them respond to their loss. Some friends avoid them because they don't know what to say, and others impose themselves constantly just to be there for people who don't particularly want them there.

The production elements of Martin's staging are particularly strong, especially Nina Ball's terrific set of an immaculately detailed and seemingly long-stagnant suburban home, with toys tucked away in corners of bookcases and under the lip of the raised kitchen floor and Danny's outer-space-themed bedroom visible through a screen. Costumer Rebecca Redmond provides funky outfits for Izzy and more conservative suburban getups for the couple, and Chris Guptill's lights accentuate the gloom and nicely mimic the flicker of a television.

Speaking of loss, the tough economic climate has been particularly hard on the newspaper business, so this is will be my last review in the paper for the foreseeable future. Good luck to the Express, and keep supporting your local theaters. East Bay companies have some exciting stuff coming up in the next few months that should be well worth whatever effort it takes to find out about it, and I hope to see you there.


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