Quality Issues

Arena Stage's The Quality of Life faces matters of life and death in a gutsy, thought-provoking, often witty manner

There are some plays that should come with a warning sticker and Jane Anderson’s The Quality of Life, is one of them. If you have been up close and personal with cancer, the death of a child, or both, you may find this study of such realities unbearable. Having said that, no one else should be deterred from seeing Quality of Life just because it sounds depressing. Downer though it is, it is also gutsy, intelligent, funny and thought-provoking, covering everything from religion and American stereotypes to the meaning of love and, of course, the Exit Door and what may or may not lie beyond it.

Quality of Life
Quality of Life
(Photo by Scott Suchman)

Anderson uses two married couples as her medium, throwing together Midwesterners Dinah and Bill, whose adult daughter has been killed, and Jeannette and Neil, a new-agish California couple dealing with Neil’s illness and the loss of their home to a wildfire. The result is a predictable clash of cultures, values and life experience and, at times, some jerking of tears. Anderson’s skill emerges most as the confrontations progress and all the characters wrestle with not just their pain but also their carefully preserved notions of how to carry on in the face of tragedy.

Though it could be perfect fodder for a particularly appalling Lifetime Movie, in Anderson’s hands we are largely spared cliché, platitude and easy wisdom. Still, Anderson’s credibility is hindered by her commercial savvy. She courts too heavily a self-help-centric audience saturated in media-fueled crisis coverage. Why, for example, two complete and separate life-altering tragedies when an examination of either one would have been more than enough? And she crams in self-examination, revelation and about-facing as though she’s worried that if we don’t have enough “Aha!” moments we’ll turn the channel. With all of this going on, there’s barely room to give contour to her characters, who, although highly accessible, are cut largely from stock.

Despite the drawbacks, Anderson uses her couples to strive valiantly for an honest engagement of ideas, and that is as rare as it is gratifying to experience. She drills far beyond the canned philosophy, mawkish edicts and empty-headed optimism we’ve come to expect.

THE QUALITY OF LIFE
starstarstar and a half
To Oct. 18
Arena Stage
1800 S. Bell St.
Arlington
$27-$69
202-488-3300
arenastage.org

And so it is under these benefits and constraints that the four players must make credible their social interactions and the profound discussions that ensue. Leading the way is Johanna Day as the middle-aged, new-aged, neo-hippy Jeannette. The most interestingly written character by far, Jeannette mixes a joyfully sarcastic, no-prisoners attitude with a genuine lust for truth and spirituality. Day sinks her teeth into this woman and draws her with tremendous energy and a compelling edginess. It is a vital and entertaining performance.  

Her ailing husband Neil, played by Stephen Schnetzer, is less dimensional, despite his bicoastal hip, wise and yet flexible philosophy on life (and death). Schnetzer takes this sketch of a man and breathes warm, credible life into him. Even though he must deliver many of Andersen’s points and counterpoints from a predictable perch, Schnetzer brings color and subtlety with his tone, phrasing, even the way in which he chooses to smile. He evokes a believable man, and when Neil’s spiritual center is rocked, Schnetzer is superb.

The work is harder for Annette O’Toole and Kevin O’Rourke as the born-again Midwesterners. Andersen sets them up as died-in-the-wool stereotypes and then expects us to believe that momentous self-examination and revelation foments beneath their cardboard psyches just waiting to be tapped by the right liberal bearing grass, wine and curse-words. So thinly shaded, their confrontations and debates with their opposites never ring true. Too much artifice is required to keep them in the philosophical game and it dilutes the dramatic power. Both O’Rourke and O’Toole work hard to beat this inherent awkwardness but neither fully overcome the lack of dimension.

If you can forgive the construct — and you should — The Quality of Life is a witty and challenging antidote to the usual, easy fix. But do bring a hanky.