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Rabbit Hole takes grieving to an alternate universe (ours) 

When a grieving mother who has lost her only son opens her front door to the teenager who drove the car that ran him over, you might expect to see fireworks at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte. Red faces, fierce glares at close quarters, and veins protruding from creased temples are what such obligatory confrontations are all about, right?

Prepare yourself not to be shocked at ATC's finely calibrated production of Rabbit Hole, the Pulitzer Prize-winning exploration of real life, real death and real grief by David Lindsay-Abaire. The only conflict I can report from Becca's meeting with Jason is her insistence on serving him a glass of milk.

But there are a couple of potentially explosive takeaways from this scene: Jason wants Becca and her husband Howie to know something about the accident that's been troubling him, and then there's the totally unexpected way that Becca brings this chat to a screeching halt. Surprise! Neither of these is referenced again.

It's often what doesn't happen that bears watching in Rabbit Hole. Theatergoers who watch Becca and Howie work through the challenge of getting on with life after their dear Danny's death may be disappointed with the low-impact of such palliatives as seeking therapy, joining a support group, watching old home videos, hosting a birthday bash for Becca's younger sister, junking Danny's room and all his artifacts, and finally putting their house up for sale.

In a pushbutton, drug-dependent civilization -- where we devoutly believe in the oxymoron known as self-help books -- we expect effective answers and instant cures. Well, the FDA won't tell you this, but I will: Such thinking is symptomatic of too much Shakespeare in your diet and too little Chekhov.

With a sobriety that I marvel at, coming from the same playwright who gave us Fuddy Meers and Wonder of the World, Lindsay-Abaire is telling us that, just like catastrophes, answers and cures often gestate inscrutably in the womb of time. Messing with the process can be a diverting but fruitless pastime -- possibly making the scar worse when the wound finally heals.

Susan Roberts Knowlson is so good at portraying Becca's brand of grief that I have to believe director Dennis Delamar dragged her into the role kicking and screaming. If Knowlson knew how triumphantly she could tread these deep waters, surely the range of her scintillating exploits until now would have extended far beyond the compass of Noises Off in comedy and Oliver! in musicals.

Similarly, it's hard to imagine Chip Decker enthusiastically embracing the tightly-wound normality of Howie. Decker is another revelation when he finds his VHS tape tampered with and later, when Jason wanders in on the family's open house. He's beyond the chameleonic comedian-director-designer-musician we've observed over the years, but after the makeover Delamar engineered directing Decker in Pillowman last year, perhaps this breakthrough was inevitable.

Filling out the family ecology are Becca's screw-up sister Izzy and their mom Nat, always at-the-ready with unsolicited advice. Each of these flawed women has her way of sprinkling comedy into a landscape parched with anguish, yet each has an extra reason why she is touched by Danny's death. Julie Janorschke-Gawle as Izzy and Polly Adkins as Nat are equally adept at keeping it all real. Future appearances onstage will be necessary for me to sort out newcomer Nikhil Pai's trepidations from Jason's, but meanwhile I'm grading his Charlotte debut a success.

Decker's suburban set design works nicely for the height-challenged stage on Stonewall, and Eric Grace's costume designs are sharply individualized without stealing focus. Thanks to Delamar, these breakout performances by Knowlson and Decker are as much a gift to them as they are to us, delivered on a finely polished platter. Take all the illumination you can from this Actor's Theatre offering.

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