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14 Jan 2018

Emotional Power: Dezart Performs' Production of the Pulitzer Prize-Winning 'Rabbit Hole' Packs a Punch

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 Deborah Harmon, Michael Shaw, Phylicia Mason and Yo Younger in Dezart Performs’ Rabbit Hole. Deborah Harmon, Michael Shaw, Phylicia Mason and Yo Younger in Dezart Performs’ Rabbit Hole. Clark Dugger

A ghastly, unimaginable tragedy can strike without warning—shocking you and changing your life in a moment, forever, beyond anything you ever envisioned for yourself.

But … why? Fate? Kharmic payback? Written on the wind from the day you were born? Are you destiny’s plaything? Or was there some random lightning bolt hurled by a careless deity, meant for someone else, that just happened to hit you instead? This desperate search for answers is the theme of Rabbit Hole, now being presented in a fine production by Dezart Performs, celebrating 10 years this season.

Written by David Lindsay-Abaire, the play earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007, as well as five Tony nominations during its Broadway run. The script examines the pain and the different ways of dealing with the grieving process. Too little has been written about this experience, though there is certainly a lot more information about it now than there was 30 years ago, when all I could find were two soft-cover books and a “support” group that stupidly refused to let you join until you had suffered alone for three months. Whether or not you have yet been through the grieving experience, you might identify with someone in the family of this play, as it demonstrates how different your recovery may be from those around you.

The play is set in Larchmont, N.Y. Becca and Howie Corbett have been struck by one of those lightning bolts and are attempting to survive it. The mundane is counterpointed with unexpected shots of raw emotion as they struggle through their days. Inevitably, blame surfaces. Self-examination results in guilt, defiance and denial. Other members of the family are dragged in to the maelstrom—and then, so is a stranger.

The actors have had to turn on their very deepest method acting skills to make this play work. Michael Shaw, Dezart Performs’ artistic director, plays Howie. He’s a New York broker who commutes and manages to leave his work behind when he comes home. His character is likable, and he makes us care for him, despite his serious demeanor. Most New York brokers I’ve encountered seem way more driven and obsessive than the quiet B-type personality Shaw gives us. His performance is thoughtful and sympathetic, but it might have been even more compelling with a dose of the slick and the cocky.

Yo Younger, as Howie’s wife, Becca, gives us a multi-layered performance that shows a lovely woman on the very edge of unraveling. Her fragility and her resilience are at war inside her, and her survival depends on which one wins. Younger makes interesting use of her mouth to convey so many emotions—and it’s something that acting students should carefully note, as Becca attempts to cope with her now-mountainous challenges, from a profound emotional healing to simply sorting the laundry.

Becca’s sister, Izzy, is played by Phylicia Mason; she’s a wild child and a loosely wrapped creature who lives for the excitement of club-hopping. She opens the play wearing an outrageous and dazzling outfit apparently left over from the previous evening’s excesses—but she, too, is forced to change her ways and try to accept a more conventional lifestyle, creating an unusual arc of growth. Mason is always fun to watch, and here, she cleverly uses her eyes to convey her character’s many facets.

Deborah Harmon is the girls’ mother, Nat. Whether or not Harmon was chosen because of her physical resemblance to Yo Younger, it is very refreshing to see a mother and a daughter onstage who actually look like they could be a real life mother and daughter. Her appearance and her impressive resume are only some of her skills; here, she gives us a solid and thoughtful performance that is a pleasure to watch. We know we are safe in the hands of a seasoned professional with her.

It’s rare to mention an actor’s age, but Jonathan Hatsios is just 19, which is indeed worth noting. He’s a College of the Desert student in the Theatre Arts program, and he is perfectly cast as Jason, the lightning bolt who changes everyone else’s life. He displays the slight awkwardness of youth as he attempts to handle a situation that requires a maturity way beyond his years. Bent on doing the right thing, he is at sea trying to deal with the adults in the room, and is very believable in this role.

Scott Smith directs Rabbit Hole—his first time directing with Dezart Performs, though he has been seen at many other valley theaters, in many capacities. Though I disagreed with some of his blocking choices, he has pulled performances out of his actors that make this play move. The rehearsals must have been exhausting. It’s all about the emotions, as we watch the characters make all the mistakes—focusing on others rather than on their own recovery, scolding to try to dominate each other, inappropriate behavior blurting out under stress, and so on.

Smith is aided by a plethora of skilled compatriots such as Thomas Valach doing set design (I hope you will appreciate the so-clever center-stage “painting” which becomes an entire room in Act II), costumes by Frank Cazares, stage management by Diane McClure, props by Cecilia Orosco, and lighting by the always-amazing Phil Murphy. Shaw shares a production credit with Clark Dugger, who also designed the sound. And as a salute to Dezart’s mission of involving and training young people, let’s mention the three working interns from Palm Springs High School: Sierra Barrick, Kaley Doherty and Sierra Johnson.

Rabbit Hole was made into a movie in 2010, starring Nicole Kidman, which I now look forward to viewing. I hope it contains the same emotional power and the serious investigation of the grieving process that this work from Dezart Performs does. And consider yourself warned: The last 60 seconds of this play will break your heart.

Rabbit Hole, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 21, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28 to $32. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

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