Theater review: ‘Rabbit Hole’ at Asheville Community Theatre

AFTERMATH OF TRAGEDY: From left, Joann Johnson, CJ Breland, Jon Morrison, Robert Walker and Courtney DeGennaro Robinson send the audience down the 'Rabbit Hole' at Asheville Community Theatre. Photo by Studio Misha Photography.

Could there be a different version of our lives playing out somewhere in another realm? When we are at our lowest, the possibility of falling into such an abyss feels strangely comforting. Rabbit Hole written by David Lindsay-Abaire, is onstage at Asheville Community Theatre through Sunday, Aug. 25.

While playing one day, 4-year-old Danny follows the family dog into the street and is struck by a passing vehicle. His mother, Becca (played by Courtney DeGennaro Robinson), quickly tries to clear her dead son’s belongings and sell the family’s once-beloved house. Her husband, Howie (Robert Walker), grows defensive, and it becomes clear that the couple are dealing with their loss in very different ways. Just as the distance starts to threaten their relationship, Jason Willette (Jon Morrison), the driver who killed Danny, walks right through their door.

Rabbit Hole is traditionally structured, anchoring itself on the characterizations of the grieving mother and father. From the onset, the story hides very little and the fact that Lindsay-Abaire’s play feels as if it’s missing something is to the advantage of the theme. However, from an artistic and psychological standpoint, what if we visited another realm with this family? Additional disarray would then take over our emotional comfort zone, and, for better or for worse, it would be a different play altogether.

In particular, the role of Becca has been defined by the Tony-winning performance of Cynthia Nixon, as well as the Oscar-nominated performance of Nicole Kidman in the 2010 film. By comparison, Robinson’s portrayal is rather calculated, and we lose a great deal of the story’s tremorous remorse. Similarly, Joann Johnson, who plays Becca’s edgy sister Izzy, feels stilted. Reassuringly, we do warm up to both Robinson and Johnson as the play continues.

It’s intriguing to see Howie’s perspective be highlighted so well in this version. Walker’s natural performance packs several gut punches that strike when truly necessary. Because Howie is played outside the actor’s head, the performance is extremely effective on an emotional level. Tears are sure to be shed.

The equally superb performance by CJ Breland as Becca’s mother, Nat, is also stirring. At first comedic, we later speculate if it’s a mere façade for the character’s loneliness. There’s a particularly touching scene between Robinson and Breland when they are sorting through Danny’s toys.

Morrison connects with the nervousness of Jason, who’s dealing with a different form of blame and regret. The title of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play suggests a story written by the character of Jason after the incident. Also, as in Alice in Wonderland, things aren’t always what they seem.

When going through grief, the human condition feels like living in a sustained nightmare or a mirage of what was once familiar. With a powerful spirit, director Stephanie Hickling Beckman urges us to summon the strength to reach for a better tomorrow.

WHAT: Rabbit Hole
WHERE: 35 E. Walnut St., Asheville, ashevilletheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Aug. 25. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. $12-$26

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About Kai Elijah Hamilton
Kai Elijah Hamilton was born and raised in Western North Carolina. A poet, screenwriter and playwright, he is also a published film and theater critic. Hamilton is a creative individual with a wide range of talents and interests. He is an Award Winning Actor (Tom in "The Glass Menagerie") and Director ("A Raisin In The Sun"). He previously served as Artistic Director at Hendersonville Little Theatre and has a B.A. in theater and film from Western Carolina University. In 2016, Hamilton's play "The Sleepwalker" won a spot in the first annual Asheville National 10-Minute Play Festival by NYS3. His play "Blackberry Winter" was a finalist in the elite Strawberry One-Act Festival in NYC winning Best Short Film/Video Diary. Hamilton is also the author of the full-length southern-gothic play "Dry Weather Wind" which has been called "Important. Relevant to the issues in today's time, and beautifully written..."

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13 thoughts on “Theater review: ‘Rabbit Hole’ at Asheville Community Theatre

  1. Anonymous Theatre Lover

    The author of this review is way off base with his critique of the performance, particularly of the actress who plays Becca. Her performance was exceptional … quite the opposite of this review, I’m afraid.

    First, Mr. Hamilton says the role was defined by the two most famous performances which came before, suggesting he walked into the theatre expecting some synthesis of Nixon and Kidman’s performances. That bias would be impossible to overcome for any performer. You don’t go see Streetcar expecting a Marlon Brando impression. You go because the play, the words, the story, are there to be reinterpreted. If you want Nicole Kidman, rent the DVD.

    Second, even comparing a stage production to a film is comparing apples to applesauce. A film’s emotional resonance comes in large part from the cinematic conventions of score, lighting, close-ups, and careful editing of multiple takes. It’s not possible for theatre to deliver the same experience, because it uses different tools. Language. Gesture. Subtext. Nuance. It’s a different art form altogether, and Mr. Hamilton demonstrates his ignorance in even proposing such a comparison.

    Finally, it sounds like what Mr. Hamilton wanted from the lead was what we typically and unfortunately endure too often in local theatre – an actor literally sobbing his or her way through their performance because the play is sad. I for one think it’s refreshing to watch an actor with the skill enough to get to the point of tears without breaking into a full-fledged blubber — not to mention delivering some nuanced acting in between. If the actor is feeling everything on the surface for us, what’s left for the audience to feel? To wit: at one point in the performance I saw, Becca shed a single tear while forcing a smile in a moment of obvious pain. It was complex. It was honest. The audience was in tears. Not the actor. That’s what good theatre looks like.

    A skilled stage actor tells the story so that the audience can feel connected to it, and these actors did that very well. I suggest Mr. Hamilton read a book or two about the differences between stage and screen before he writes another one of these summary opinion pieces posing as legitimate theatre critique. Our theatre community would be better for it.

  2. Curious

    How can Mountain Xpress improve its reviews so the problems the commenter refers to don’t happen again?

    • Eternal Theatre Lover

      Do not allow Mr. Hamilton to continue reviewing theatre in the area. The reviews appear to be influenced by alliances or personal connections and are often elementary, petty, and short sighted. There is a difference between writing a subjective and well crafted review and nit picking minute moments crafted by performers who are, more often than not, volunteering their time to bring important works of theatre to their community.
      We rely on theatre to present our devastatingly homogenous community with new ideas, questions and explorations of experiences beyond our own. We do not need reviews that attack small moments or acting choices of our dedicated theatre makers.
      We need reviews that examine the morality and message of the theater. Get audiences talking and asking questions. That is the purpose of the art form- not to tear each other down. We get enough of that on a national level and this pettiness has no place in our theatre community.
      ACT, and all involved, should be immensely proud of this production. Thank you for brining difficult and relevant stories to our community. We need you and your work.

  3. Alli Marshall

    While I appreciate the views of those who’ve commented here, the overall review is very positive. The criticism expressed by the reviewer is mild; Xpress doesn’t print scathing reviews preferring, instead, to give press to the shows our theater reviewers (all of whom do have theater backgrounds) find worthy of coverage. Trying to present reviews without any possibility of being critical is really just PR, and our readers deserve more nuanced and well-rounded coverage than that.

    • Theatre Practitioner

      I completely agree that well-rounded reviews are vital and necessary to improving the art form and raising standards in our community. This is not the first review I have read of Hamilton’s that equates a local actresses performance to that of a famous counterpart. Surely, we all deserve more than this, especially in 2019.

      No one gets into theatre expecting only niceties, compliments and praise. We are all quite used to the opposite, as we are often our own worst critics. What I have heard expressed is that we are merely calling for an end to lazy, formulaic and poorly written reviews that fixate on trivialities rather than providing any deeper analysis.

      • Curious

        Which of MX reviewers do you recommend? Ken Hanke had quite a following and was trusted. Are there any theatre reviewers with the credibility of Mr. Hanke?

        • Theatre Practitioner

          Perhaps, allow Hamilton to apply this feedback and make changes? If progress can be made, people should not be torn down in the process.

    • Jason W

      Thanks for doing as many reviews as y’all do at the Mountain Xpress. Our corporate newspaper gave up on local theater reviews a long time ago. Reviews are not only a good advertisements for shows, they’re necessary to individual theater artists and companies to prove that a show actually happened and was seen, as well as making them an necessary part for artists portfolios, company marketing, and grant applications. I do wish Xpress had the time and resources to review all shows.
      It’s tough because I hear people grumble about needing reviews that are more than a “book report”, but when they get an actual critical review everyone is up in arms about it and blames the reviewer of not knowing what they are doing.
      An ideal situation would be a sort of “Rotten Tomatoes” review, where there are several opinions on a show., but I know that’s pretty unrealistic for a print publication. However you can always find positive reviews on Facebook.
      I would agree that holding our community theaters to the standard of film, or Broadway productions, is a little unreasonable. History of productions are fine, but comparisons are odorous, as Dogberry would say.

      • Theatre Practitioner

        Is there any possibility of showcasing a more diverse group of critics?

  4. JHNC47

    I am amiss as to why people are so upset about this review. I did not see this play, unfortunately, but I spoke with someone who did. Their take was that Mr. Hamilton’s remarks were on point.

    I have read the first comment by ‘Anonymous’ three times, and I can’t help but wonder why this comment seems to be taken so personally(?) I further wonder if this person is not a relative or friend. His entire comment seems to be based on only one actor. Hhmmmm?

    Personally, I have read many reviews by Mr. Hamilton and have always known him to be honest and unbiased. In this review, Mr. Hamilton refrained from any cruel remarks, just SLIGHT constructive criticism. If I were an actor, I would want such criticism; it would encourage me to improve my talent. Conversely, Mr. Hamilton did give praise for the actors and the play in its entirety at the end of his review.

    It is my contention that Mr. Hamilton does not want the audience to equate local actors with those most famous for the same roles: This is probably why he mentions it. It is only fair to the theater company, when we take our seats, that we remember we are at a local, small town theater.

    Furthermore, if we only wish to read ‘peaches and cream’ reviews, each and every time, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. How else will we know which ticket to buy?

    Thank you, Mr. Hamilton, for your reviews whether good, bad, and indifferent. Thank you for keeping us abreast of local art and what we can and cannot expect. I enjoy your reviews and look forward to reading many more in the future. Thank you, Mountain Xpress, for allowing the community to give its say about the art world, as we see it.

  5. Marcianne Miller

    Being on stage anywhere in the world requires talent– and a thick skin. Has nobody in Asheville ever read a theatre review by a New York critic?? Eegads.

    I got the impression from Mr. Hamilton’s review that this was a darn good production of Rabbit Hole. Okay, he could desist in comparing portrayals by movie stars to that of a local actresses–just give his straight opinion on the performance without comparison. Otherwise, Hamilton’s review was perfectly fine – beautifully written, informed, positive and helpful.

    You can’t compare the work of a local theatre critic with that of a movie critic. Movie critics, ordinarily, review productions made by strangers so they feel emboldened to say whatever they think about a performance. (One reasons there are so many snarky movie reviews.) Local theatre critics are honest but they also take into consideration that the local productions are just that – local, with all the wonderfulness and challenges that the word “local” implies. As Alli Marshall pointed out, the job of the theatre review is not to do publicity.

    In my opinion, I see the job of a local theatre critic as three-fold: to provide criticism that 1) tells enough about the play as literature to inform the theatre goer 2) contributes to the betterment of both the work of a specific local theatre and by extension to other theatres as well. And 3) informs an audience about either what to expect in a theatre production, or what to discuss afterwards with other theatre goes.

    As the only publication in town offering theatre reviews, the Xpress should be congratulated, and so should Mr. Hamilton. And more Ashevilleans should support local theatre!

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