The Quality of Life
Examination of the ethics of dying is top ‘quality’
The Den Theatre presents
The Quality of Life
Review by Joy Campbell
Bill and Dinah are Ohio conservatives: he’s a laconic carpenter, she’s a nervous, chatty homemaker who knits, and they are active in the church. Neil and Jeanette are free spirits who live in a yurt in California following the destruction of their home by a fire. Dinah and Jeanette are long-separated cousins, and when Dinah hears that Neil has cancer, she persuades a reluctant Bill to go for a visit.
On the surface, these two couples could not seem more different, but they are in fact joined by the common thread of loss: Dinah and Bill’s daughter was violently murdered, and Neil’s cancer is advanced and terminal. As pleasantries strain under the clash of differences in lifestyles and philosophies, each side’s veneer of complacency slowly gives way to darker truths. Neil’s inhalation of medical marijuana makes things uncomfortable enough, but when he informs Dinah and Bill that he plans to commit suicide so that he can die with dignity, and Jeanette tells Dinah she plans to join him, all hell breaks loose.
In Jane Anderson’s astonishing script, the characters unfold as artfully as the story. At first we are presented with what seem to be types (uptight, born-again Ohioans; pot-smoking New-Age Californians), and it’s easy to assign them to their respective pigeonholes. The beauty of Anderson’s work, however, is in taking these apparently stock characters and giving them real voices and layers of complexity until we are invested completely in each.
This is a story about the ethics of dying, of crushing loss and our need to quantify it, explain it, insert it into a framework of understanding. It’s about the search for control in the face of helplessness; for meaning in senseless tragedy. It could be a heavy-handed show, but Anderson injects enough humor and banter to keep the subject from sagging under its own weight, while providing provocative commentary from both sides. Under Lia D. Mortensen’s excellent direction, the pacing and tone keep this engrossing two-hour show moving so well that I was surprised to discover at intermission that 90 minutes had passed.
The performances are exceptional in deftly painting a balanced picture of humor, rage, despair, and acceptance. Jennifer Joan Taylor’s Dinah is the Nice Woman struggling with her husband’s distance since their daughter’s death, the peacemaker between him and the others who reveals a woman far more open-minded, perceptive and angry than she’s initially given credit for. Her first experience with pot is not to be missed — forget any stereotypical notions you might have; this is pure gold (no pun intended). Her stoned diatribe of why she likes Jesus but not his father is a funny but touching rant that hints at her deep bitterness.
As Jeanette, Liz Zweifler is spot-on as the aging hippie whose ostensible lack of concern for material things hides a terrified desperation to be immune to any feelings of loss as she faces the death of her husband of 29 years. Her humorous diplomacy keeps things from getting too close to the edge, even though it’s clear she’d at times like to push them over herself.
Ron Wells as Neil gives us a man confronting with humility of not only his own mortality and pain, but also his own values. Faced with Bill’s inflexibility and judgmentalism, Neil manages to remain genuine and uncondescending, and provides a thought-provoking philosophical counterpoint to Bill’s point of view. His face is worth a thousand words.
Bill (Steve Spencer) is perhaps the most complicated character of all. At first blush he’s unlikeable, cold and uptight, an inflexible Bible-thumper. Through small acts we grow to realize that he is a kind, good, lonely man, and that his commitment to the church after his daughter’s death is not a reflection of a small mind but of his terrible need to find moral certitude in a world where senseless things happen. During a story told by his wife about a family camping trip, he gives her a single amazing, soul-baring look that shows completely the anguish pent up within him. Alone with Jeanette, he confesses his anger not only at the man who killed his daughter, but also at the church that tells him that it’s wrong to want to understand why bad things happen, and to not question God. He is a man who wants answers that he can never have.
As each side prompts soul-searching in the other, suppressed feelings surface, truths emerge, and denial fails. Relationships re-emerge, and as each character lets go of his illusions and faces the sadness and fear that lie beneath, all questions about how to deal with grief lead to just one answer: you endure it.
The Quality of Life continues through December 1st at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $25, and are available online through BrownPaperTickets.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at TheDenTheatre.com. (Running time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)
Photos by Joe Mazza
Steve Spencer (Bill); Jennifer Joan Taylor (Dinah); Ron Wells (Neil); Liz Zweifler (Jeanette)
behind the scenes
Lia D. Mortensen (director); Shelly Crosby (asst. director); Jen Bukovsky (stage manager); Henry Behel (set); Andrew Vanderbyte (lighting); Melissa Schlesinger (sound design); Zachary Gipson (asst. scenic design); Jon Buranosky (props); Ginger Leopoldo (production manager); Ryan Martin (producer); Joe Mazza (photos)