BWW Reviews: Artists' Rep THE QUALITY OF LIFE Asks the Tough Questions...and Laughs at Them
Here's the thing: I really want you to go and see this play, but I'm not going to be able to describe it in a way that will make you want to go. So click over to some other web page and ignore this review, because it's going to make a wonderful play sound awful.
Still reading? Okay. But don't say you weren't warned.
Jane Anderson's The Quality of Life is a play about grief and the various ways people deal with it. Oh, you're thinking, a heavy drama. Nope, it's a comedy. A black comedy? No again. It's warm, heartfelt, profane, and hilarious, and it's life-affirming in the best possible way. Anderson looks at grief from every possible angle and leaves you bruised but hopeful. Yes, you will have tears in your eyes, but you will also be smiling. As Truvy says in Steel Magnolias, "Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion."
We're introduced to Dinah and Bill, a middle-aged couple in Ohio. Their daughter has died some months ago, and both are struggling. Bill goes through the motions, persevering in his daily activities, but taking no pleasure in them. Dinah is the kind of chatty woman we've all met in line at the supermarket, the kind of Midwesterner who will tell a total stranger whatever happens to come to mind. She's prone to sudden, short bouts of tears, and Bill quietly steadies her until they pass.
Dinah has been in touch with her cousin Jeannette, who lives in California. Jeannette has her own tragedies: her house has been burned to the ground by a wildfire, and her husband, Neil, has cancer. Dinah feels that she and Bill should visit Jeannette and Neil, and so they do. Jeannette and Neil are the kind of free spirits who drive people like Dinah and Bill crazy (and vice versa); they swear and drink and can't keep their hands off each other after twenty-nine years together. Neil is seriously ill, and Jeannette is making jokes about it, but you can see their hearts breaking. Bill and Dinah are born again, and have their own feelings about life and death, and that's where the play takes off.
Whatever your own feelings about life and death, religion, sex, and any number of other topics, you're bound to find attitudes you agree with - and disagree with - in The Quality of Life. Anderson's characters, however, aren't easy to pigeonhole. Dinah and Bill struggle with faith in the face of grief, and they have secrets from each other that aren't easy to reconcile. Jeannette and Neil have their own kind of New Age spirituality, but with Neil growing weaker, they're both trying to find something to comfort them.
See what I mean? I've just made this wonderful play sound like a position paper on the stages of grief, and it's nothing like that. It's outrageous and funny, and director Allen Nause makes sure to keep the play grounded and believable. It never turns maudlin, and the funny lines don't snap like sitcom one-liners; you feel like you're listening to a genuine conversation among long-estranged family members. Tim Stapleton's set is astonishing; Jeannette and Neil have moved into a yurt on their property, and they've strung the trees with their fire-damaged possessions, and it's like the set for a very weird fairy tale. Everyone on the design crew has done their best to make the play sparkle.
It helps immensely that Nause has cast the play with four of the best and most experienced actors in town, and all of them shine. First among equals is Linda Alper as Jeannette, perhaps because she has the most outrageous things to say. Jeannette calls everyone "baby" and tries to be relaxed and mellow, but when her anger rises Alper turns into a fireball, and no one is safe. Susannah Mars fills Dinah with surprises; she has a way of letting little secrets and odd impulses sneak out of the side of her mouth, and she goes from a sweet peacemaker to a determined force of nature. Michael Mendelson is quietly wonderful as Neil, whose illness has slowed down his body but not his mind, and you can feel his frustration at the way everyone tries not to mention his cancer. The trickiest role might belong to Michael Fisher-Welsh as Bill, who comes across as a killjoy, bringing every conversation back to God and faith, but gradually Bill's human side shows, and we realize how deep his pain is as well.
The Quality of Life is one of the best plays of the season. I knew nothing about it when I walked in to see it and I was surprised and delighted by it...and very deeply moved. If you're still reading, I hope you understand why I loved it, and I hope you'll see it for yourself.