Editor’s Note: This review contains SPOILERS.—R.W.M.

In Manbites Dog Theater’s production of Rabbit Hole, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, playwright David Lindsay-Abaire attempts to explain how five close-knit individuals come to grips with devastating loss. He presents us with five characters, each of whom is trying, quite literally, to live with a terrible reality. Four of them are dealing with the loss of a family member. The other, a teen still in high school, tries to deal with the fact that he is the one who took that family member from them.

Manbites Dog artistic director Jeff Storer has assembled a tremendous ensemble for this play — including Marcia Edmundson, Katja Hill, Derrick Ivey, Nicole Quenelle, Lamont Reed — and placed them on an ample and impressive reality-based set. The centerpiece of the set is a simple spinner-lamp, the type that has an inner cylinder that spins due to the heat of the light bulb. This lamp, aglow in the room once occupied by four-year-old Danny, depicts the planets of the solar system in constant motion. Around the lamp is the room Danny grew up in, complete with stuffed animals, dinosaurs, and robots. The rest of the house spreads out from that center room. The kitchen is stage right, complete with working sink, refrigerator, and a large eat-in island across the front. Almost center, upstage, is the front door of the house; the living room sprawls stage left. Both set and costumes are designed by Derrick Ivey, who pulls double-duty in this show, both onstage and off. Sound design is by John Gromada, who has also penned an original score for the work; and lighting is by Chuck Catotti.

The first light we see — other than the spinning lamp in Danny’s room — comes from the refrigerator, as Izzy, short for Isabella (Nicole Quenelle), seeks sustenance in the home of her older sister, Becca (Katja Hill). The two are discussing Izzy’s night out last week, in which she decked a drunken and screaming antagonist she had never seen before.

Izzy, in a characterization of what could only be describes as a handful, is pleased with herself; but Becca is appalled that her younger sister would be caught brawling in a public bar. But it turns out that Mama to them both, Nat (Marcia Edmundson), is already aware of the situation; Becca reveals that she is also now hurt that Izzy didn’t tell her about the situation first. But Becca is also pretty sharp; she informs Izzy that people don’t attack other people in such a manner without reason, and that Becca thinks it might be something in Izzy’s character — like perhaps Izzy had been sleeping with the woman’s boyfriend. “That,” responds Izzy, “is completely beside the point.” But the upshot of the entire story is that said relationship has made Izzy pregnant, and she is completely pleased with herself for that, too.

Izzy knows that this is probably hard for Becca, especially “now, when things are so bad.” This scene, as well as establishing the characters, reveals to us that something is terribly wrong.

Becca has been folding clothes, and they are children’s clothes. She hits upon the idea that they should save them for the new child, in case it’s a boy; but Izzy says no. “It would be weird,” she protests, “to see my boy running around in Danny’s clothes.”

Quickly upon the heels of this exchange, Nat arrives simultaneously with Becca’s husband, Howie (Derrick Ivey), who has just returned home from work. We learn, among the usual chatter of the family, that it has been eight months since Danny was killed in an accident, when he ran into the road chasing the dog, Taz, and was struck by a car. He was four years old.

The entire play, once this event has been established, focuses on the pain and slow repair of the family; and what the tragedy has done to them up until now. In the next scene, Howie attempts to seduce Becca; but she will have none of it. “I’m not ready,” she tells him. “We’ll never be ‘ready,’” he replies. “We will never wake up one morning and realize things are back to normal.”

But when a letter arrives from Jason (Lamont Reed), the young man driving the car, who sends them a story he has written that he has dedicated to Danny, it is not Becca that reacts so fiercely. Becca has asked Howie to sell the house. One Sunday, after an open house, Jason arrives unannounced. Howie immediately turns on the boy, and coldly tells him he should not be here. His anger is palpable and also shocking, both to Jason and Becca. Jason flees. But Becca soon invites Jason to the house, one afternoon while Howie is at work. It is a frightfully uncomfortable but lovely scene in which Jason receives the forgiveness he has come to seek. Becca insists that it was not, in any way, Jason’s fault that Danny is dead.

The play is Becca’s, and Hill does an admirable job of letting us see the devastation of a mother at the loss of her child; but also there is a truly remarkable resilience inside her. By the time she has met with Jason, 10 months have passed. We are beginning to see that, despite Howie’s recriminations, Becca is coming to grips with Danny’s death better than her husband is. But she asks her mother, while they begin packing up Danny’s bedroom, if this feeling ever goes away. Nat, who knows, says no; it will change, eventually, but it will never go away.

This play is amazingly simple, both in language and in plot. It simply depicts the slow and necessary steps of grief that each individual must go through in order to survive such a loss. It is spectacularly subtle, and these actors maintain that subtlety with a marvelous precision; we can see that the massive load that is Danny’s absence is, by the pressure brought to it by all the participants, slowly beginning to move. It will be a long time going, but it is, finally, on its way.

Lindsay-Abaire writes a play that is almost 180 degrees opposite another Manbites Dog Theater play of his, Fuddy Meers. That play was more of a mystery than anything, with lunatic characters and hilarious situations. This play is amazingly and frankly factual, dealing with insurmountable pain and sorrow and only hinting at the fact that, slowly, with work, the pain will eventually ease. Izzy’s pregnancy accentuates the process of continuation as she visibly swells as time progresses. The power of this work comes from within the characters themselves, as each one in his or her own way tries to deal with the loss of this innocent child. Manbites Dog’s production has a very simple tale to tell, and it is both passionate and profoundly gentle in the telling.

Manbites Dog Theater presents Rabbit Hole Wednesday-Saturday, Dec. 12-15, at 8:15 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 16, at 3:15 p.m.; and Wednesday-Saturday, Dec. 19-22, at 8:15 p.m. at 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $12 Wednesday-Thursday and $17 Friday-Sunday, except $8 Student Rush tickets (door sales only for students with ID). 919/682-3343 or http://www.tix.com/Schedule.asp?OrganizationNumber=150. Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/209/. Rabbit Hole: http://dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=3757 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.). David Lindsay-Abaire: http://www.newdramatists.org/david_lindsay_abaire.htm [inactive 11/10] (New Dramatists) and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1865755/ (Internet Movie Database).