Jason Koonce could have picked a popular romantic comedy for his directorial debut.
"'Rabbit Hole' is certainly not an easy one," Koonce said of the play that opens tonight at the Looking Glass Playhouse. "It's an intense emotional drama about people trying to recover as a couple from a tragedy in their lives. There is sadness, and some lighter times, too. But the focus is on their struggle."
The tragedy is the death of Becca and Howie's 4-year-old son, who was hit by a car eight months earlier. Becca's mother, Nat, and her younger sister, Izzy, try to comfort the family. But Izzy, always the family troublemaker, announces she is pregnant. The heartbreaking story unfolds as Becca and Howie come to terms with the new life in the family while dealing with their grief. A complication arises when Jason, the driver of the car that killed their son, makes contact with the family.
"There are lots of challenges, physically and emotionally," said Koonce, 27, of Dupo. "This drama has a heavy relationship element."
That's quite a change for Koonce, who worked on the lighting crew for "Shrek," the previous Looking Glass production. He has acted in several plays, mostly comedies, since 2001 at the Lebanon theater.
David Lindsay-Albaire wrote both "Rabbit Hole" and "Shrek," a fantasy about a big green ogre.
"There are some lighter moments (in "Rabbit Hole"), where the audience can take a breath and relax," Koonce said. "But the show is about emotions and how they play in the characters' relationships.
"Having a very talented cast makes it easy for me."
Melanie Vick, of Belleville, has the demanding role of Becca.
"She is dedicated to the role," Koonce said. "It's a tough role because Mel is always on stage. Her character's emotional ups and downs are the core of the show."
Vick is up to the task.
"It's true, there's just one scene where I'm not on stage," she said. "There are a lot of very emotional scenes that take a lot of focus. ...
"When I'm away from the theater, I'm constantly going over my lines. There are so many of them. I'm a reader and I'm constantly using my Kindle. But I haven't looked at my Kindle for a couple of weeks.
"When I walk in the door, I am in the role. The character is a stretch for me because I'm usually a light-hearted person and Becca is Type A."
Vick understands Becca's situation.
"I know what it's like being at that place in life when you are taut constantly. When one more thing can make you snap. She is just struggling to get back to who she is. ...
"From reading the script, people might think she's a hag. She's not. She's damaged. It's a fine line for me to walk to say mean lines but not have her come off as a mean woman. It would be easier to play her as a hag."
Vick said Koonce is doing a good job in his debut.
"He's delightful. He had some insights with the charactes that surprised me. Mature observations. I enjoy working with him to bring out the characters' nuances."
Other members of the cast are:
Dan Schmidt as Becca's husband, Howie: "I didn't know him until 'Shrek,'" Koonce said. "He did some great comedic acting there. But he blew me away at auditions. I knew rigt away he was Howie."
Sarah Sapp as Becca's sister, Izzy, and Stephanie Rhein as her mother, Nat: "They are right on character. Solid," Koonce said. "They are the lighter characters, but they also have some very deep moments."
Matthew Crawford is Jason. Another perfect fit, Koonce said.
The set is a basic open floor plan, with most of the action taking place in the living room and kitchen.
"We were lucky in filling up the rooms with pieces and furniture that just seem to fit in their home."
What does Koonce hope audiences will take with them from the show?
"As sad as some aspects of life can be, there is always hope.
"You watch the family go through the stages of grief and learn to cope with it. It's easy to see how the hope in the show relates to hope in real life."
"When we first started rehearsing, we'd use some levity in between ... someone would tell a joke. But the farther we got into it, you can't do that anymore. It breaks your focus."
What: "Rabbit Hole"
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and Nov. 21-23; 2 p.m. Sunday and Nov. 24
Where: Looking Glass Playhouse, 301 W. St. Louis St., Lebanon
Tickets: $10 for adults Thursdays and Sundays; $12 for adults Fridays and Saturdays. Discounts available for seniors, students and military with ID.
Reservations: 618-537-4962 or lookingglassplayhouse.com
Mature audiences only: adult themes and language.