Intrepid Theatre’s Producing Artistic Director Christy Yael-Cox saw a production of Jane Anderson’s play, The Quality of Life, at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and fell in love. Now, she’s directing a production of that self-same play and the love is apparent.
In fact, even though the publicity material touts Ms. Anderson’s work as being about assisted suicide, it’s really about much larger questions, such as the persistence of love in the face of tragedy and what constitutes both a “good life” and a “good death.”
Dinah (Maggie Carney) and Jeanette (DeAnna Driscoll) are cousins, but their lifestyles couldn’t be more different. Dinah and her husband, Bill (Tom Stephenson) live in the Midwest, where Bill oversees a thriving construction business. Jeanette and her spouse, Neil (Jeffrey Jones) live at the top of a canyon along the Left Coast. Their house burned in a fire, so they have built a yurt on the property and are doing their best to live in a self-sustaining, off-the-grid, manner. The two cousins, their value systems essentially at odds, have practiced a policy of benign neglect toward each other.
Tragedy brings them together. Dinah, despite grieving the death of her daughter at the hand of a random, insane, killer, persuades Bill to travel with her to visit Jeanette and Neil when she learns that Neil has terminal cancer. Rather than taking comfort from the presence of a relative, however, the trip serves only to highlight the differences between Dinah, Jeanette and their respective partners.
Now, a conventional “issue play” would line up the sides and have them hurl dogma at one another. To some degree that convention is fulfilled, but fortunately such episodes last only brief moments. The conversation easily gets diverted from issues to relationships, and the play focuses itself on how Bill and Dinah’s relationship and Neil and Jeanette’s relationship holds up under expectations, both conventional and unconventional, about ways of behaving toward each other to demonstrate their love.
A main difference separating these couples is religion, and debates about what constitutes a “good death” in particular reflect religious principles, or lack thereof. Dinah and Bill, the religious couple, do sometimes wander off into Pat Robertson Land, but even then still find ways of taking in Neil and Jeanette’s choices and hearing them out.
Ultimately, though, the play comes down to love, and there is plenty of it despite the disagreements. There’s also plenty of humor, enough to catch off-guard audiences who think they’re watching heavy drama. When a laugh happens, it bursts forth fully.
Ms. Yael-Cox’s production is relatively simple and wisely focuses on the quality of acting on display from her four cast members. Each character has at least one surprise in store, and it is to these four actors’ credit that each surprise comes across as plausible.
The play’s not a perfect one. It feels disjointed and awkward whenever the scene takes place anywhere but the canyon top. There’s at least three endings, and the ones that precede the final one play as less-than-satisfying. But, there’s much to enjoy in watching these actors – how subtle shifts of position or facial expression or muscle tone reveal how the character is reacting in the moment to what is transpiring. It’s a tour-de-force ensemble in a local theatre season that’s featured much excellent ensemble work. A richly layered production design (set by Michael McKeon, lighting by Curtis Mueller, costumes by Mary Larson, sound by Ms. Yael-Cox, and properties by Bonnie Durben) compliments the richly layered performances.
The Quality of Life will tug at you, tug at you, and then tug at you some more. Despite dealing with topics that no one wants to face, it’s very much a must-see production.