Through the looking glass

Posted on 23 Jan 2009 at 12:32am
By ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

‘Master Harold’ unfolds beautifully; ‘Rabbit Hole’ feels the pain


FAMILY FRACTURE | A man (Ashley Wood, left) and his wife (Joanna Schellenberg, center) react very differently to the death of their son in ‘Rabbit Hole.’ (Photo by George Wada)

The pain feels authentic in Rabbit Hole, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas’ production of the Pulitzer Prize-winner about how the death of a child affects his surviving family. But it also raises the question, for me at least: How far can my sympathy go for one person?

The ostensible protagonist of this modern drama is Becca (Joanna Schellenberg), a mom who, eight months after her son was struck down after darting into traffic, still cannot bring herself to touch her husband Howie (Ashley Wood) or even deal with her emotions.

But Becca is the most unlikable grieving mother this side of Ordinary People. She’s a bundle of passive-aggression, sniping at her younger sister Izzy (Marianne Galloway), and refusing to be happy for her when Izzy gets pregnant. Becca dismisses the pain of her own mother (Sue Loncar), who lost her son (albeit under very different circumstances), and even undervalues her husband’s efforts to cope.

Is Becca a realistic portrait of self-centered grief? Maybe. But she’s also an unpleasant one, a hero who’s hard to root for.

It’s hard to tell if that’s the result of playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s script of Schellenberg’s performance. Certainly Schellenberg exudes a WASPish iciness with her prim bob and pinched expression. And as the play unfolds, Becca softens slightly into a more sympathetic human. But the journey getting there can be frustrating.

It is not, however, without its joys along the ways. Loncar has never been better, and Galloway’s smart-ass sis breathes comic energy into what could be a dour two hours.

If Rabbit Hole occasionally seems like a Lifetime movie, Master Harold … and the Boys from the African American Repertory Theater in DeSoto more closely resembles a piece of theatrical origami: It folds upon itself in imperceptible ways until what emerges at the end is something quite different, and more beautiful, than you imagined going in.

White South African playwright Athol Fugard’s quasi-autobiographical play tells the story of a teenager, Hally (Andrew Bourgeois), in 1950 Port Elizabeth. Hally pals around with the black men who work in his parents’ diner, Willy (Christopher Dontrell Piper) and Sam (William Earl Ray) — telling them about school, learning from them and griping about his folks. Like Becca in Rabbit Hole, Hally is completely self-focused, a trait that, ultimately, proves to unravel him emotionally.

(Here’s a hint to the difference: Hally isn’t the hero.)

This 90-minute real-time one-act lopes along for a while until it finally reveals the deep-seated barrier between the races, without ever becoming preachy. Fugard deals in metaphors about manhood as reflective of the broader society. It is chimerical — political theater where no politics are discussed and you can only see the full shape of its power after the foundation has been laid.

Credit the exceptionally tight three-man cast (especially Ray, as a man who refuses to compromise his dignity) for delving so superbly into the dark side of humanity. It’s worth the drive to DeSoto to see theater this good.

This week in theater

It happens every fall: Theater companies, frantic to get their shows mounted and their runs completed before the holidays, bottleneck with new offerings. This week, several shows with gay appeal hit the boards.

You can see a bunch of fairies bless the stage of the new Wyly Theatre with the Dallas Theater Center’s debut production of its 51st season,
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Cedric Neal as the chief sprite. It begins previews Saturday.

Upstart Productions, which got off to stellar first season last year, returns with the raucous Talk Radio, with Elias Taylorson, pictured near right, stepping into the Eric Bogosian role of shock-jock; it opens Oct. 28.

The HCG Gallery gets into theatrical production with a new play, The Mythical Memphis Coy; or, Just Another Metrosexual?, pictured far right, by Dallas playwright Donnie Wilson, about a narcissistic supermodel. It opens Friday.


Theatre Three mounts Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy Snake in the Grass  in its downstairs space starting previews Friday, with the ever-busy Bruce Coleman directing his third play in about as many weeks.

Second Thought Theatre begins its 6th season on Thursday with Sam Shepard’s not-at-all-gay A Life of the Mind.

— A.W.J.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 23, 2009.

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