John Adams, the second president of the United States, once said that “grief drives men into habits of serious reflection, sharpens the understanding, and softens the heart.” If Arena Stage’s newest production, The Quality of life, elicits the same response from its audience, the production’s two male cast members, Stephen Schnetzer and Kevin O’Rourke, will be pleased.
For the characters in The Quality of Life, there is no shortness of grief. It is the fifth character in a four person play, which finds Bill and Dinah, a fundamentally conservative Christian couple recovering from the loss of their daughter, visiting their polar opposites in northern California. Jeannette is Dinah’s cousin and is married to Neal, a man who has accepted his fate and stopped chemotherapy after cancer spread through his body. Neal and Jeannette, a liberal and eccentric couple, reside in a Mongolian tent-like structure called a Yurt on the land where their house once stood, before a wildfire destroyed it.
The differences of opinion between the couples are apparent from the start. But after Neal and Jeannette reveal that Neal will be practicing “self-release” from his illness before he gets too sick, ideologies and ideas clash in earnest.
“How do you manage grief – heartbreaking, terrible grief?” asked Stephen Schnetzer, who plays Neal in the play. This question was important to the actor who was drawn out of New York City to be in the play, after rejecting other out-of-town projects. He hopes that audiences can “learn something about delving into grief and examining it.”
But he also hopes that audiences experience compassion and empathy. He recalled the playwright, Jane Anderson, saying, after the opening performance, that the play “is a dialogue between conservative and liberal points of view and these people get together and they accept each other and acknowledge each other’s differences but also acknowledge each other’s commonality.”
Actor Kevin O’Rourke was so impressed by the play that, when he learned the role of Bill would be recast following its West Coast run, he called his agent to make sure he got the audition. “Tolerance is a big word that a lot of people bandy about,” the actor said, “and I’m not as fond of that. I’m more of an ‘understanding’ person.” He noted that the cast and crew has done its job if the audience can take away an appreciation for another person’s point of view.
In order for the play to bring about these kind of feelings in the audience, the performances would have to be believable and real. To each of the actors, this posed a different problem.
For Schnetzer, this meant that Neal had to be sick, really sick. According to Schnetzer, the idea initially was that, since he plans on “self-release,” that he would do so before he gets too sick. However, after people saw the run throughs, there were complaints that his character was not sick enough to justify his suicide. So, the character was reformed to be more sick and to struggle more physically throughout the play.
“I felt a responsibility to that community of people,” Schnetzer said, of those who suffer from cancer or know someone who has. The most challenging part of his role, he said, was the development of the illness throughout the play. Neal is very sick but there are “peaks and valleys” through the play. There are times when Neal is overcome with emotion and is given strength he does not normally have. Schnetzer said that, so far, he has received good reviews from cancer workers who have seen the play.
The character of Bill required considerable reworking to get right as well. In fact, director Lisa Peterson revealed that almost the entire second act is new because of rewrites for Bill.
When the play was originally done on the West Coast, Bill was almost cartoonish and was laughed at by audiences. He represented the “intractable conservative point of view,” according to O’Rourke, that never shifted throughout the play. But O’Rourke conveyed that Anderson’s rewrite allowed Bill to move through a “more sustained arc” in his grief rather than becoming stuck in the anger phase.
For O’Rourke, the difficult part of the role was to make the character of Bill believable while Bill maintained his beliefs. Bill does what one might expect from a born-again Christian or a social conservative, at least at the beginning. But O’Rourke wanted to delve deeper into why his character did the things he did. “Why is it so important for him to deal with grief through the prism of fundamentalist Christianity and how does that manifest itself?” O’Rourke asked.
“Most people don’t deal with death and loss the way the people in the play do,” O’Rourke noted. But if the grief suffered by the characters in the play can sharpen the audiences sense of understanding and help soften their hearts to the circumstances and beliefs of others, then The Quality of Life will have accomplished what its two male cast members set out to do.
The Quality of Life runs through October 16th at Arena Stage, Crystal City. Details, direction and tickets.