Falling down the ‘Rabbit Hole’
Camden — In “Alice in Wonderland,” the title character falls down a rabbit hole and finds herself in a world where everything she knew makes no sense at all. In David Lindsay-Abaire’s play “Rabbit Hole,” which opens Saturday night, Sept. 7, for a three-weekend run at the Camden Opera House, a family is freefalling into life after the death of a child.
It is a story of grief, loss and hope that won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Midcoast production by the Everyman Repertory Theatre features troupe regulars as well, as newcomers including a seasoned stage vet; and a local student making his first professional stage appearance.
Fifteen-year-old Ryan Martin, who just began his sophomore year at Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro, has been cast in the role of Jason, a 17-year-old whose actions are integral to the play’s plot. In grammar school, Martin appeared in plays directed by Midcoast arts educator and theater director Valerie Wells, but had not been on stage since he was 9. Interested more in serious drama than musical comedy, it is not something he has pursued at MVHS. But he knew he wanted to get back on stage … and so did his parents.
“My mom told me about the auditions. She said, ‘I know you want to act again.’ So I came,” Martin said the last week of August.
As Martin won’t start driver’s ed until next month, getting the role meant a commitment on his parents’ part as well as his own. The family lives in Warren, so Martin’s mother has spent much of the summer driving him to rehearsals and his brother to football practice. Had she not mentioned the auditions, she would only be taking one route.
“I quit football to be in this play,” Martin said.
Sports was never his top interest, though. Martin said he has wanted to be an actor since he was very young. In fourth grade, he wrote a letter to Warner Brothers about a movie he wanted to make.
“I knew I wanted to make movies and be in movies,” he said, adding “acting’s something I’ve always been very good at, it’s not scary to me at all.”
He may not have been scared about auditioning but when Joseph W. Ritsch, visiting director from Baltimore, called Martin two days after auditions to offer him the part in “Rabbit Hole,” the teen knew it was a big step.
“I was a little nervous, because I knew it was a professional company,” he said.
Ritsch, recently named co-artistic director of the respected Equity company Rep Stage in residence at Howard Community College, and the Everyman regulars were nervous the night of auditions. They had put out the casting notice for the crucial role of Jason but gotten no inquiring phone calls … and when the audition hour struck, no one showed up. They had begun to discuss their options and didn’t hear Martin step out of the third-floor elevator door at the Camden Opera House.
“All of a sudden we felt this presence in the room and there he was. It was like an angel dropped into the room,” said Ritsch.
Martin had studied the play in advance and took a few minutes to read through and think about the audition scene offered. Ritsch said the teen looked right for the role but, they wondered, could he act? A moving read-through with Everyman Producing Director Jennifer Hodgson, who plays the central role of Becca, hinted that he had some chops … and the weeks of rehearsal that followed have proved it.
“For a young man with relatively little experience, he has great instincts and he’s really warmed up to the other players. It was a bit of a risk but I think it was in the stars, as they say,” Ritsch said.
“I love doing it and I love the people I’m working with! It’s awesome,” said Martin.
The teen said learning lines is something he hardly has to think about at all, not such a surprise for a bright young mind. Delving into the character he is playing, however, has gotten him thinking in ways that surprise him.
“My character is a lot more into science stuff than I am and now I’m beginning to get into it,” he said.
The experience of working with a professional company has many benefits — Martin just found out he will be paid for his stint — but there is one he appreciates the most.
“I get there and I’m treated as an equal, not having adults trying to teach me something, which I do 100 percent the rest of the time,” he said.
Working with equals, and friends, is part of what drew the busy Ritsch to the Midcoast for the summer — that and the cooler temperatures. The native New Yorker attended the University of Maine with local dancer and massage therapist Hanna DeHoff; DeHoff’s husband, Everyman Production Stage Manager David Troup, invited Ritsch to perform in last December’s “Reindeer Monologues” at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. In the process, he got to know Everyman co-founders Jennifer and Paul Hodgson, the troupe’s Artistic Director. Both Hodgsons appear in “Rabbit Hole,” as do veteran local actor Andrea Itkin and newcomer Kari Luehman, one of Maine’s three 5Rhythms teachers.
“I love this play and have never had the chance to direct it before, so it was a good opportunity for me, and the timing of it just worked out,” he said.
Ritsch is in the midst of a demanding and lauded career as a director, artistic director, acting and movement performer, choreographer, playwright, designer and arts educator. In classic show biz fashion, he will stay through the opening of “Rabbit Hole” and then depart, leaving the show to its cast, crew and stage manager. It’s clear he feels the production is in good hands, particularly those of its leading lady and man.
“Jen and Paul know each other well, of course, but that doesn’t always translate into chemistry on stage or being able to work together or separating on stage from at home. They are consummate professionals,” he said.
The journey their characters take in “Rabbit Hole” differ, and that is the crux of the play, which Ritsch said does a great job of balancing a gamut of emotions.
“We all grieve and mourn very differently and have to give each other the space to do that. The question is how to navigate that process and still end up a family at the end,” said Ritsch.
The fragmentation of the family at the center of “Rabbit Hole” is reflected in its set, designed by Dan Dalrymple and lit by Brandon Koons. A week before the opening, it was getting ready for assembly, on a revolve, on the opera house stage. Ritsch said he is aiming for something that looks like it came from the sketches in Jason’s journal, which play a role in the storyline. Everyman has hired illustrator Emma McDonnell to create some of the sketches to be projected as part of the set design; and commissioned original music by Michael Perrie for the show.
For all the heartbreak “Rabbit Hole’ explores, it also offers hope — the hope of moving through sadness to a place where one can find joy in the memories of a lost loved one.
“It is so beautifully written, emotionally and technically,” said Ritsch.
Everyman’s “Rabbit Hole” will be presented Saturdays and Sundays at 7 p.m. through Sept. 22 plus Friday, Sept. 20, at 7 p.m. at the Camden Opera House on Elm Street/Route 1. General admission tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at door, $10 for students. Tickets are available at HAV II and Owl and Turtle Bookshop, Camden; Reading Room, Rockland; online at everymanrep.org; or by calling 236-0173.