Rabbit Hole
Manbites Dog Theater

Through Dec. 22

We can understand why Rabbit Hole won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama. Much like the Orphean myth alluded to in one of its closing sequences, the play follows a married couple, Becca and Howie, through the emotional underworld of grief, some eight months after the accidental death of their small child, Danny.

The veritas of their icy, brittle exchanges, with mooky or boorish relatives and each other, convincingly conveys the formal feeling that Emily Dickinson once wrote of as coming after death; a dynamic that artistic director Jeff Storer fully explores in this Manbites Dog Theater production with noted actors Katja Hill and Derrick Ivey. All in all, these qualities make this a show worthy of superlativesbut one also requiring a consumers’ advisory as well along the way.

By now, regional theater-goers have come to associate playwright David Lindsay-Abaire with a series of screwball comedies, largely predicated on medical quirks or psychological disabilities. In Manbites Dog’s rewarding 2001 production of Fuddy Meers, the playwright found improbably appealing slapstick in characters with aphasia and psychogenic amnesia while, a couple of years after, Actors Comedy Lab’s Wonder of the World hinged on an outlandish sexual dysfunction or two. Though Kimberly Akimbo has not been produced locally, its world premiere during the 2000 National Critics Institute completely disarmed an audience of hard-nosed theater insiders as it explored the dysfunctions of a family dealing with a daughter with progeria, the accelerated aging disease. Need we note that none of these situations provides the most easily minable terrain for comedy?

At first, the same seems the case here. The playwright’s title winks at us, while the company’s promotional material promises a “bittersweet comedy” to “share with your family this holiday season.” And regular Indy cartoonist V. Cullum Rogers’ whimsical show poster leaves us nothing to dreadinappropriately so as we later find, when we discern the moment his drawing actually depicts.

As a result, those expecting the pratfallsor even the redemptive laughterof Lindsay-Abaire’s previous works are likely to feel they’ve been rabbit-punched well before the end of Rabbit Hole.

Yes, we laugh as Becca’s streetwise younger sister Izzy (a tart Nicole Quenelle) appalls her with an account of her latest combination of bar fight and romance (a tale she tells while mooching a crème caramel in big sister’s achingly pristine kitchen). Later, their mother Nat (Marcia Edmundson) demonstrates a Kennedy family obsession that provides a gleeful moment of poor taste before it sparks the implosion of another family gatheringitself, one of the playwright’s signature moves.

But, particularly in the last example, Lindsay-Abaire keeps the comic well separated from the relief. A queasy sense of old wounds reopenedinadvertently at first, but later with intentnegates the early, easy laughter. Repeatedly, we think someone’s going to get hurt, just before we realize that someone already has been. Throughout Rabbit Hole, the playwright seems to factor and ration out the minimum quantity of laughs and tension breaks that his characters and audience need just to withstand it all. In the last analysis, though Lindsay-Abaire’s few jokes are effective, they don’t mask the starkness underneath.

The ominous ending of this decidedly austere work explores another aspect of the Orphean myth: that the longer the living spend in the sunless lands, the more they themselves become like the dead. During the play’s endgame, Storer’s direction and the acting of Hill and Ivey make it clear that husband and wife, though together, are fundamentally alone, gripped in the icy isolation of their own grief. But just as they acknowledge what they’ve been doing isn’t working, their brittle stiffness turns absolute. All movement stops. Each stares ahead, completely frozen, for a moment in time. At the least.

In short, it’s one of the most compelling portrayals of loss I’ve seen in months on the regional stage. It is also verifiably no comedy at all. Still, the integrity of such moments is one of the things that makes Rabbit Hole well worth seeingeven if it isn’t exactly the production that was advertised.

E-mail Byron Woods at bwoods@indyweek.com.