The Quality of Life
By Jane Anderson
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater
Tuesdays through Sundays
Through November 18, 2007
Once again the Geffen’s baby sister has left big sis in the dust. The main stage is featuring Wendy Wasserstein’s Third – intended to be a blockbuster but a grave disappointment -- while little sib around the corner is entertaining and provoking with The Quality of Life, commissioned by the Geffen itself. Quality has humor and wit, while tackling several of life’s more complicated subjects: love, grief, anger, loss and death. That is a tall order and a difficult mix. Writer/director Jane Anderson does not get it right all the time, but she often strikes a pleasing balance between gravitas and entertainment.
Two couples are facing catastrophic loss. One is from the Midwest. Their college age daughter has been brutally murdered. They are barely holding themselves together individually or as a couple. The other two are living in a tent on their burnt out, Berkeley Hills property (a wonderful set by Francois-Pierre Couture dramtically using a huge photo of burnt out hills as a backdrop), the husband is facing his imminent death from cancer; they are the kind of couple usually described as ‘joined at the hip.’ The only thread binding the two couples is a common grandmother shared by the two women who have not seen each other in years.
Families can make strange bed fellows. The person you would pay little attention to at a dinner party can become the person for whom you donate bone marrow or even consider giving up a kidney.
As tenuous as their real connection is, the search for connection is sufficient for Dinah (Jobeth Williams) to push her husband Bill (Scott Bakula) to venture their first trip from their secure, Christian, Kansas home to the wilds of Northern California. The Berkeley hills dwelling Jeannette (Laurie Metcalf) and Neil (Dennis Boutsikaris) are as though from another planet. Each couple is on its best behavior, cognizant of the others’ loss, burning from their own.
On one level Quality is about how differently Ms. Anderson projects that a quintessential fundamentalist person from a red state will face monumental loss versus how a stereotypic (if extreme) vegetarian, liberal, atheistic coast dweller deals with it. Dinah and Bill have turned to church. Bill has looked to his church for all his answers. He is an engineer who sees the world in black and white, not knowing what to do with his anger but to keep it tightly bottled up and one suspects it is the anger that protects him from being crushed by the loss. Dinah, too, looks to her faith for the answers but she is prone to crying fits and knowingly stays busy to keep herself distracted. She tries to converse with her taciturn husband. Empathy only flows in one direction and the flow is not strong. In their pain they are exquisitely polite and unavailable to one another.
Neil and Jeannette could not be more different. He is a revered Sociology professor at UC Berkeley. He has decided that his cancer has progressed to a point that treatment no longer makes sense to him. His plan is to get as much as he can from the limited life he will have, he stems his pain with pot but knows there will come a time when it will no longer suffice. His plan is to deliver his last lecture, they will have a party for all their friends, and the next morning, in the arms of his beloved Jeannette, he will take a lethal dose. He is apparently at peace with this plan; the one thing he can control is his exit.
Jeannette, a poet, presents herself as a free spirit barefoot in her ethnic clothes, having created a home out of a richly decorated yurt with a makeshift kitchen under the burnt out trees and expressing her adoration of Neil openly and frequently. They have strung up lanterns between charred stumps and have the twisted shapes of some of their burnt possessions hanging as décor. Jeannette quotes Neil, “We are the ones who instill preciousness on things.” It is the ultimate case of making lemonade if life deals you lemons. She adores Neil, doting and draping upon him, outwardly endorsing his plan without hesitation, covering her pain with wine.
As polite as all try to be, it is a mix that is destined to be volatile. Bill bolts from the group at the mention of pot. He tries to “save” Neil despite Neil’s polite disdain. When Bill steams off again, Neil says “A little dogma is alright between consenting adults,” humor the fundamentalist Bill could never accept. Dinah is more open. She desperately wants to make the connection with her cousin and, without losing her faith, is able to accept much more of the Berkeley philosophy. In her sweet way she is looking for answers, not looking for conversions.
The intimacy that develops between the two women leads Jeannette to share her own plan which is to lie down and die with her husband rather than face the ravages of time and age without him. It is a bizarre plan which cannot be explained away by a different life style and distresses all of the others. None of the others can accept her decision, least of all Neil.
Anderson tells this tale with as much balance as she can muster, but her philosophical sympathies, and the Westside audience’s politics are clearly more comfortable with the Blue state couple. Neutrality is hard to muster, but Jeannette’s decision appalls all while it serves to focus the drama. The juxtaposition of Red State vs. Blue State is a simplistic way to view Quality. In the end it is a story of how ill equipped most of us are to handle deep grief and how there are no shortcuts through tragedy. What Anderson excels at is serving this tragedy with clever dollops of wit rather than a hammer. What she does not quite get is the world from the born-again Bill’s point of view.
Laurie Metcalf is kooky, but likeable as Jeannette, and JoBeth Williams hits the right notes as the people pleaser Dinah who is finding her own voice. Dennis Boutsikaris as Neil is convincing as the dry witted intellectual, if a bit robust looking for someone with end stage cancer.
Viewed as a work in progress Quality of Life is an excellent start. Tightening of the role of Bill would go a long way to creating a more real ring. However, it is certainly more ready for prime time than Third and bristles with meaning as well as entertainment.