Arden's 'Rabbit Hole' has cast, crew cooking

Actresses Grace Gonglewski (left) and Julianna Zinkel make Lemon Squares in Gonglewski's kitchen. "The baking has helped me prepare" for the role, Gonglewski says.
Actresses Grace Gonglewski (left) and Julianna Zinkel make Lemon Squares in Gonglewski's kitchen. "The baking has helped me prepare" for the role, Gonglewski says.
Posted: December 03, 2009

Food and drink are not uncommon stage props. But in most theater productions, the actors don't actually eat and drink, so the food is often faked.

Not so for the Arden Theatre Company's production of Rabbit Hole, which requires the actors to eat crème caramel, chocolate cake, apple torte, zucchini bread, and lemon squares in eight performances a week for nine weeks.

The play by David Lindsay-Abaire, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for drama, tells the story of a couple fraught with grief after the loss of their young son. Becca, the distraught mother, who left her Sotheby's real estate job to be a full-time mom, bakes with a renewed fury to cope with her son's death.

"By the end of the run we will have eaten 44 cakes, 80 crème caramels, five zucchini breads, 160 beers, and 40 gallons of milk," says production manager Courtney Riggar, not to mention the apple tortes and lemon squares.

So, exactly how does a nonprofit theater company operating in a rocky economy supply all of that food?

In a variety of ways.

Grace Gonglewski (gon-GLESS-ski), the Barrymore Award winner who plays Becca, bakes the lemon squares for every performance in her own kitchen - partly to prep for her role, partly to ensure the texture for the stage, and finally, because she loves to bake.

For the rest, props manager Meredith McEwen spends five hours every Monday afternoon baking at the Arden for a week's worth of performances.

It's no small feat for a props manager, but there is a little fudging: Instead of crème caramel, she makes Jello brand flan. Gingerbread from a box fills in for zucchini bread, which appears too green under the stage lights.

Instead of fresh-squeezed orange juice, McEwen stirs up some Tang, which is cheaper and can sit for months (years?) without going bad. White wine is really lightly steeped green tea; apple juice is the store brand, watered down.

Beer? Water in one scene and real nonalcoholic beer in another when the sound of the bottle opening is key.

In lieu of apple torte, McEwen layers yellow cake (from a mix) into a prebaked pie shell with a mix of applesauce and cornflakes.

"It's not great, but it doesn't taste terrible," Riggar says. "It's just that nuts and other things that generally make up a torte are expensive, so we use the cornflakes as an inexpensive way to make it appear as if it has a nutty, crumbly crust."

The birthday cake, which is yellow with chocolate icing, is the most complex of the food props. It has to be sliced and served onstage.

"So we bake a full cake and cut it in half. Then the real half is iced together with a fake half made of soy wax.

"Once it's iced, you can't tell the real half from the fake," Riggar says. "Then we make a map with the birthday candles to let Grace know where to cut. Otherwise, she'd try to cut into a block of wax. And there's a chocolate drizzle in a fancy pattern on the plate, too, that also serves as an indicator of where to cut.

All those baking aromas have nearby staffers salivating.

"We have to turn them away," Riggar says. "After all, these are props - we need them."

Before the production began, Riggar queried the actors about food allergies or preferences. Turns out Temple University undergraduate Aaron Stall, who plays the neighborhood teenager, Jason, is lactose intolerant.

But there was a bigger problem in the scene in which he drinks a glass of milk with the lemon squares.

At the first rehearsal, "the lemon squares were too gooey," Gonglewski said in a recent interview in her Mount Airy home. They tried freezing them, but they didn't defrost in time.

"So that got me thinking," Gonglewski said. "I'm supposed to be a fabulous cook in the play; how hard can it be to make them myself?"

The baking project started as an act of physical realism, but it turned emotional. Her character, Becca, is yearning to release the pent-up nurturing side of her personality and Stall, as Jason, becomes the object of her maternal instincts.

"I like taking care of Aaron in real life, too," she said. "And the baking has helped me prepare for the role."

As the fifth of seven children growing up in Central Pennsylvania, Gonglewski learned her way around a real-life kitchen early. Baking became her passion.

In the tall wooden cupboard of her sunny, yet-to-be renovated kitchen, Gonglewski still has her mother's 1957 edition of Joy of Cooking ("She gave it to me when I went off to college") and her maternal grandmother's more battered 1931 edition. They seem at home with Gonglewski's collection of old cookbooks and aprons, and paintings by her 6-year-old daughter Silvia, who is named after Gonglewski's mother.

Home baking wasn't the only personal touch Gonglewski brought to the role. She sorted through piles at home for 2006 issues of Gourmet magazine and spent time with a Sotheby's agent "to get in touch with all things Becca-like."

Gonglewski fell while running a few weeks into the production and sprained her right wrist. She kept her arm, now almost healed, in a sling during her most recent baking session, when she enlisted aid from actress Julianna Zinkel, who plays her young, exuberant sister in Rabbit Hole.

Like real sisters, they teased and taunted each other lovingly. Gonglewski instructed Zinkel, a kitchen novice, in rolling a lemon on a countertop to release its juices and in the right way to shake zest from a grater.

And she shared this recipe for her mother's Lazy Day Pizza Crust. It calls for two cups of mixed flours (one cup whole wheat pastry flour and one cup cornmeal), a tablespoon of yeast, a teaspoon of sugar, some salt, a cup of warm water, and a splash of olive oil.

Combine the dry ingredients, except the salt. Then add the wet ingredients and the salt. Mix by hand, knead, and let the dough sit on the top of a stove preheated to 425 degrees for as long as it takes to prepare the pizza toppings. Then roll out the dough on a stone sprinkled with cornmeal.

Gonglewski's favorite topping combination calls for garlic, thinly sliced and pressed into the dough; lots of tomatoes, and a little cheese. She tops it all with masses of finely chopped kale and sprays that with canola oil so the kale crisps in the oven.

Meanwhile, her lemon squares are done. When they've cooled sufficiently, Zinkel tops them with confectioners' sugar. Then, injury or no, Gonglewski cuts pieces herself and serves them to her guests on clay-fired plates crafted by her daughter. They taste divine.

"All this is making me nostalgic," Zinkel says, finally. "I'm going home to cook. Something. Anything."


Ultimate Lemon Squares

Makes 24 squares

One 9x13x2-inch pan, buttered and lined with buttered parchment or foil

For cookie base:

16 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup confectioners' sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose flour

For the lemon topping:

4 large eggs

2 cups sugar

6 tablespoons strained lemon juice

1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest

Confectioners' sugar for finishing

1. Set a rack in the middle level of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.

2. For the base, in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed. Beat in the confectioners' sugar and vanilla and continue beating a minute or two, until light. Lower the speed and beat in the flour.

3. Spread the dough over the bottom of the prepared pan, using a small offset spatula or the back of a spoon to smooth it. Bake the base about 20 to 25 minutes, until golden and baked through.

4. While the base is baking, prepare the topping. Be careful not to overmix the topping or it will have a coarse-textured foam on the top when baked. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs just to break them up. Whisk in the sugar, then the lemon juice and zest.

5. As soon as the base is baked, remove it from the oven and pour on the topping. Immediately return the pan to the oven and continue baking the squares for an additional 25 to 30 minutes, or until the topping is set and firm.

6. Cool on a rack until completely cooled.

7. To cut the cake, use the paper to transfer it to a cutting board; slide a long knife or spatula between the cake and the paper or foil, then pull it away. Trim the edges, use a ruler to mark, then cut the cake into 2-inch squares.

8. Dust with confectioners' sugar before serving. For up to several days, store the squares in a tin or plastic container with a tight-fitting cover.

Per square: 196 calories, 2 grams protein, 27 grams carbohydrates, 19 grams sugar, 9 grams fat, 57 milligrams cholesterol, 13 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.


Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at www.philly.com/inquirer/columnists/dianna_marder/.

"Rabbit Hole" continues through Dec. 20 at the Arden Theatre. Ticket information is available at 215-922-1122 or www.ardentheatre.org.

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