Town Hall Theatre delivers a poignant and moving play with Abaire's award winning "Rabbit Hole"

David Lindsay Abaire’s award winning play, Rabbit Hole, is currently spellbinding audiences in the Town Hall theatre in Lafayette. Perhaps you drove to San Jose back in May of 2007 when I reviewed the same play at the San Jose Repertory Theatre and highly recommended that you take the drive to the South Bay. If not, you have only the remainder of this week to catch this remarkable play about the loss of a loved one and the frustration and futility of a family attempting to carry on to and live a normal life, as it existed before their tragedy.

Under the artful direction of Susannah Martin, a brilliantly directed cast reveals a family immersed in grief following the accidental death of their young son, Danny, their only child, when he was struck by a car while chasing his dog into the street. As the play opens, the husband and wife, Howie (Ryan O’Donnell) and Becca (Csilla Horvath –Lewis), are painfully re-examining their marriage, and their relationship with themselves and their family and friends. Even though it is now 9 months after the terrible accident, they are still questioning and blaming themselves, for what they feel they should or should not have done. The result is that they feel distant from each other and empty inside. Old friends don’t call, embarrassed now that they have waited too long, trying to put time and distance between them and the horrific event. Becca and Howie have put away their future plans, the mental wake still lingers. Generally, most people never really find “closure”, but, they may find a way to channel their energies into positive endeavors, rather than dwelling on past events that can never be changed.

The play explores extended family relationships, beginning with Becca’s unmarried sister, Izzy (played by Emily Morrison), who has just announced to family members that she is unexpectedly pregnant with her first baby. Becca’s mother, Nat (played by Sally Hogarty), puts up a good, albeit artificial front. She is a critical parent who talks incessantly hoping to drown out the voices in her own head, and making inarticulate verbal noise in the form of conversation, in an attempt to keep the topic away from what is on everyone’s mind, the troubling and worsening depression of the deceased child’s mother, Becca. Nat is hopelessly, awkwardly, tactlessly, stupidly, constantly steering the conversation towards a discussion of someone’s death, especially in other families, particularly in the homes of the wealthy and privileged. She rails against the Kennedy Clan, the Kennedy Dynasty and all the untimely, unfortunate deaths that have followed that family like a curse! From Rose Kennedy to John John, the rambling goes on and on, with other family members attempting to shut Nat up. “It’s a frickin waste” cries Nat, “a frickin waste!”, other family deaths share the spotlight, not very well, but they still steal into the discussions.

Jason (played by Liam Callister), the young man who drove the car that struck and killed the child, tries to communicate with the family, attempting to assuage his own guilt (and perhaps that of the victim’s family) in whatever small way he can. However, his initial attempts to meet with the family are met with hostility and outright rejection. He eventually dedicates a science fiction story written for his literature class, to the memory of Danny, thinking that the child might have enjoyed his story about parallel universes and conduits of transition he calls “Rabbit Holes”.

Even though the play is a poignant, heavy play, it is not without humor. Artfully, the author, introduces comic relief time and time again, to relieve the heavy and painfully realistic encapsulation of a family’s life imploding.

The acting is absolutely exquisite, bold, powerfully and painfully realistic. The set design by Nina Bell, the lighting design by Chris Guptill, and the costumes by Rebecca Redmond, bring all of the diverse elements (even the music) together in a crescendo of chaotic disharmony, and at the same time into a beautiful, powerful and moving production. This is a superbly written play that will help you to understand and empathize with anyone you know who has suffered the great tragedy of the loss of a loved one, regardless of the cause.

This terrific play continues this Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., now through this coming Saturday, when it closes. The Town Hall Theatre is located at 3535 School Street at Moraga Road in Lafayette. Call (925) 283-1557 for reservations or ticket information. Ticket prices range between $28 and $32 each. Seniors and youth range between $25 and $29, depending on the performance. The website at is an excellent source of information.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre In the Next Room, or the vibrator play rubs its audience the right way

Mean while, Berkeley Repertory Theatre has once again validated the reason I value having this theatre company’s productions on my “A” list of theatre companies to attend. Theatre not only provides my wife and I with entertainment, it constantly provides us with opportunities to broaden our education. I am an avid student of history and Berkeley Repertory Theatre often tackles stories and subject matter that few other theatres would dare to explore. Why, because few theaters have an eclectic and diverse enough consumer base to finance theatre that challenges and explores topics on the edge of our society’s moral acceptance.

Such is the case with Sarah Ruhl’s new play entitled, “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play”.

Women’s bodies and their reproductive powers have been a major topic of curiosity and research and conjecture, reverence and fear, probably since the beginning of man’s ability to communicate. Hysteria as an illness dates back at least to Greek science, as the word “hysteria” derives from the word, “hystera”, which means uterus, or more literally, “of the womb”. The definition of this disease became a catchall term for any condition that could not be explained by current medical understanding, or from any discernable cause. In other words, in the Victorian and Puritan era, any condition ranging from Schizophrenia, anxiety, panic attacks, epilepsy, boldness, hearty sexual appetite, sexual apathy, or even fainting, was frequently diagnosed as a condition resulting from “hysteria”. Pre-20th century logic reasoned that any ailment or condition even remotely connected to or having to do with the womb, would be cured or relieved by sexual release. The preferential prescribed cure first considered was marriage, secondly a “strong encounter” by a husband, and third, a Freudian psychological intervention. Unfortunately, little was known as to why many women’s bodies (their Physiology) were simply uncooperative. Today, figures are quoted that proclaim that anywhere from 50-70% of all women do not achieve orgasm without some form of clitoral stimulation. Women who did not respond to the “old fashioned solutions” were simply considered to be abnormal.

Sarah Ruhl’s play, examines a turn of the century American doctor, Doctor Givings, and his medical practice, which centers on men and women, plagued with conditions commonly diagnosed as based in “Hysteria”. He has embraced the modern miracle of electricity and the application of electricity in new medical devices, devices that in one way or another would eventually be classified by us today as “vibrators”. Even though the doctor doesn’t fully understand the psychological and physical mechanics that result in heightened feelings of comfort, anxiety release and the overall improvement in a woman’s physical wellbeing, his patients immediate improvement in temperament and reduction in previous ailments, has his vaginal stimulation services in great demand.

Mrs. Givings, the doctor’s wife, has been basically uninterested in the intimate details of her husband’s practice, as his constant ramblings on the miracle of Thomas Edison’s inventions and his use of electricity to facilitate its expansion into many facets of American enterprise and home life, basically bored her. That is, until their first electric floor lamp is installed. Both of them repeatedly wonder in amazement at they repeatedly pass by the new fixture, stop and pull the lamp chain, turning the lamp on and off.

Mrs. Givings has just recently given birth to a new baby girl, but her milk has not come in yet. She is becoming increasingly more distressed with every passing day with what she feels is her inadequacy as a mother. Her husband strongly suggests that they find a wet-nurse to breast feed the baby. Since the Doctor’s office is in their home, she on occasion meets some of his patients and on one particular occasion, she meets Mrs. Daldry, a woman who is unable to have a child and who is being treated by the doctor for Hysteria. They become friends and through that relationship, she is introduced to the Daldry’s housekeeper, a black woman, known as Elizabeth. It turns out that Elizabeth has just recently lost an infant son to cholera and is lactating quite heavily. The Givings employ Elizabeth as a part-time wet-nurse.

As Mrs. Givings sees her child respond quite lovingly to the affection and ample milk of Elizabeth, she becomes more and more despondent over not being able to fulfill this need in her child, herself. As she becomes more estranged from her husband, and life and reality, her friendship with Mrs. Daldry grows. She becomes more and more curious as to what treatment her husband is actually performing on this particular patient, whose mental state and physical well-being improves markedly following every “treatment” . When she asks her husband to examine herself and to provide her with the “treatment” to see if it would help her out of her despondency, he refuses, stating that it is not “ethical” for a doctor to treat his own wife. Rejected by her husband, she turns to Mrs. Daldry and finally extracts the “unmentionable treatment process” from her. Yet more curious, when her husband is out for the evening, she enlists Mrs. Daldry to help her in using her husband’s electrical apparatus to perform the miracle treatment on herself.

The doctor is also treating a male patient (an artist), Leo Irving (played by Joaquin Torres), who is suffering from “hysteria” as well. This artist also becomes friendly with the women, including the wet-nurse. As this play develops, a greater understanding of the morally restrictive nature of men and women’s sexual relationships in this time period evolves and consequently we gain an even more intricate, interesting and evocative perspective.

This entire tale is richly humorous throughout and yet is very enlightening, entertaining and thought provoking. It provides a very realistic look at the puritanical morality paralyzing the upper classes in this country at the turn of the century. Further, it touches on the difference in sexual experiences by women of differing social classes. I strongly recommend that you get to the theatre early enough to sit down and read the program. There is an article entitled “Strange Bedfellows”, by Madeleine Oldham, which is a superb article on the history of this subject and should be mandatory reading!

“In the Next Room, or the vibrator play”, continues in the Roda Theatre of the Berkeley Repertory Theatrical Company at 2015 Addison Street, near Shattuck, in Berkeley. Call (510) 647-2949 for ticket information and pricing or visit their excellent website at, or call (888)4-BRT-Tx (toll free). Tickets range between $33 and $71 depending on the performance date and time. The show closed on Sunday, March 15th, with the 7 pm performance. Curtain times are generally 8 p.m., on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, while on Wednesday and Sunday evenings , they are at 7 p.m.. In addition, there are matinees on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m..