In my time as a DC Theatre Scene reviewer, I have seen half-a-dozen plays which are so real that it seems less like I am at a play and more like I have snuck into the characters’ living room, and am now eavesdropping on their lives. This play is one of them.
Mark Twain observed that the origin of all laughter is in pain. Thus if your first reaction to this story of Bill and Dinah, who have lost their daughter to a brutal murder, and to Jeanette and her terminally ill husband Neil, is to laugh, don’t be self-conscious. Playwright Jane Anderson and this production mean you to laugh. So, if we are to take this play’s wisdom, does God.
Of course, no one knows what to say with people who have suffered, or are suffering, such calamitous loss. So the two couples say the wrong things to each other, and sometimes they say hilariously wrong things to each other. The comedy, excruciating and liberating, comes out of the characters, who we come eventually, and slowly, to love. When Bill, frustrated by Dinah’s insistence that they visit a cousin he has no desire to see, announces suddenly he is going to mow the lawn, we instantly see the embodiment of the greatest-generation man, who has a garden tool to express every emotion.
This play, which is mostly done on the site of Jeanette and Neil’s fire-devastated home, could have been done in the style of a Lifetime made-for-TV movie. It is not, principally because Bill, Dinah, Jeannette and Neil are not characters in a soapy drama, but are real people like the woman in the seat next to you, who has rolled up her program and is now talking about what happened at the office today. When a real person suffers a blow of the kind that is the subject of The Quality of Life, it is an insult, a slap in the face so hard that it forces a rearrangement of the moral deck, and a reconsideration of all the relationships and assumptions that make up a life.
Faced with a sadness no one in a just world would ever suffer, Bill (Kevin O’Rourke) and Dinah (Annette O’Toole), stolid Midwesterners, put on a conservative form of Christianity which warns them not to question the God of Job and Abraham and to instead accept the warming embrace of Christ. When asked how he copes with his unspeakable loss, Bill says that he puts “one foot in front of the other” and this is a one-foot-in-front religion, which insists that its adherents love God in spite of the evidence of their senses. That this narrow, compulsory Christianity fits so easily with Bill’s stiff and judgmental personality allows him to generate some of the most dramatic dialogue to the play, but it is a credit to the artists involved – Anderson, O’Rourke, and director Lisa Peterson – that he never becomes a plaster villain, and that his agonized human heart is always on display.
Californians Jeanette (Johanna Day) and Neil (Steven Schnetzer), on the other hand, breezily announce that they are using the horror around them as an opportunity to detach themselves from their material possessions. (Set Designer Neil Patel puts a statue of the Laughing Buddha behind them to underscore the point). One by one they gesture to the remains of their home – a dish here, a spoon there, a window over here – and remind everyone that the objects have not been destroyed, only transformed (mostly to colorful glass, it appears). That this detachment now extends to their own bodies provides the locus of most of the story’s drama.
It is a pleasure to watch the work of a playwright who in two hours’ space of time creates four real people, who are full of the quirks, misapprehensions, and contradictions of everyday life. That it is complimented by four actors who are at every moment on stage the people they are meant to be makes The Quality of Life a significant accomplishment, and a DC Theatre Scenes pick. Schnetzer, whose work is well known to us (he was most recently Voltaire in Legacy of Light at Arena) comes up huge in creating the charismatic Neil, a man both brilliant and strong who, until the very end, treats his terminal cancer like some sort of annoying inconvenience which is taking up a great deal of his time and will, incidentally, kill him soon. O’Rourke is simply amazing: a collection of half-completed gestures, repressed rages; operatic griefs squeezed into tiny convulsions of the face, he is in every moment a man who longs to burst out of his own skin, and would if it wouldn’t be so undignified.
We learn quickly, of course, that the patches which both couples have improvised to stave off the horror are falling apart. Dinah, after a bit of refreshing intoxicants, gradually reveals that the Almighty God she has come to know – the one who told Abraham to kill his son, and the one who sent His own Son to a horrifying death – is actually Himself a Son Of A Bitch. And Neil, as the end approaches, admits that his detachment has been a sham – that piece of colored glass near the tree, catching the Sun, used to be his camera – and he wants it back. Eventually, they fall into a weary, resigned acceptance: as Jeanette rages about the depredations of the nearby coyotes, Neil tells her that the animals are merely taking care of business. This commentary might, with equal facility, describe Neil’s own tumors, which are growing and thriving because that is the imperative of all living things, and not for any reason personal to Neil.
Raw, vibrant and seemingly spontaneous, The Quality of Life radiates an unpolished veneer, which is a clear sign of a production proceeding at the speed of life. And in the end we understand what the quality of life is: beautiful, heartbreaking, and temporary. It is a million acts of love and grace which put off, until the very last minute, the endless No.
The Quality of Life – TOP PICK!
By Jane Anderson
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Produced by Arena Stage in association with Jonathan Reinis Productions and Stephen Rich
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
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