Hence, Bambi's mother or Simba's pa. After a mopey scene or two, we're free to thrill as our boy finds his identity by blowing up his Death Star. Because it might otherwise seem sick that our shared fantasies are predicated upon how kick-ass it would be to have mom shot by hunters, our heroes are invariably saddled, at story's end, with loving surrogates ... any of whom might bite it to set up the sequel.
Whether we've simply become numb to it or whether we suffer some sort of orphan envy, we happily accept the deaths of parents in our entertainment. The death of children, though, is still faintly taboo. Before inviting a date to Rabbit Hole, a moving and often funny play that showcases most of the Unicorn Theatre's virtues, you'll probably find yourself offering a warning: "It's about a family mourning a dead kid."
Dwelling as it does on what feels (to our American minds) as a violation of life's natural order, such material is simply too unpleasant for some people. Still, the fact that Rabbit Hole is almost entirely successful shouldn't be surprising. Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has always brought a light touch to dark material, and this is the third Unicorn show in a year to deal with dead children. It feels familiar, at first, in its depiction of a marriage in which every conversation is land-mined by memories of the lost son. But, nudged along by fine acting and superior stagecraft, it builds steadily in power. By its end, it's deeply absorbing, stirring us with its honest humanity.
Cynthia Hyer and Larry Greer star as Becca and Howie, the grieving married couple. Both are excellent, their characters no longer comfortable with each other but not yet disengaged. Watching them negotiate their intimacy is at times wrenching; to both actors' credit, it's often funny as well.
As audiences, we've come to expect Medea-lite madness from mothers in such extreme states of despair. But Hyer is well served by Lindsay-Abaire and director Theodore Swetz. Rabbit Hole, a rare show that allows a female character to drive its narrative, always allows Becca her dignity.
Other characters admit some sun into their dark lives. Becca's sister, Izzy, is a punkish barroom brawler with a secret of her own; unfortunately, Katie Gilchrist's depiction of her comes to life only intermittently. Her hyperactive behavior at the opening is mannered; her sulkiness in the middle feels unmoored.
Kathleen Warfel fares better as Becca's mother, Nat, a flaky chatterbox who gets the show's best laugh lines and what is probably this winter's great theatrical speech. Sitting with Becca in the lost boy's room, she explains, with a rousing quaver, why a hurt like this will never go away and why it shouldn't.
Lindsay-Abaire's dialogue is the best kind of theatrical talk: It sounds like real people at their best. He builds each scene to a strong monologue, but he still demands patience. Only after intermission, when the characters make some brave and welcome choices, does his fresh take on the material become clear. Instead of punishing us with this family's grief, he's shepherding us and them through it.
His most inspired idea is the inclusion of Jason (Joe Mayers), the high school senior who drove the car that hit Becca and Howie's son. Jason wants to meet with Becca; he has even written a science-fiction story and dedicated it to the deceased. Mayers plays Jason with a jittery calm, and his scenes never wind up where you think they might. Like life, they're inconclusive but rewarding.
From lesser talents, stories like this tend to offer either false hope or no hope at all. Their authors never seem to realize that this is the inverse of the death-of-parents story that's as ingrained in us as once upon a time. Lindsay-Abaire recognizes (and almost makes explicit, in Jason's sci-fi) the link between this story and those: The long journey ahead of our heroes this time involves the re-creation of identity. Stripped of the child, the family's biological purpose, Becca and Howie must find themselves before finding each other.
That journey, they discover, is still worth taking, even a second time. In the play's final moments, the stage is dark, but the audience is lit up with hope.