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Theater Thu Nov 08 2012
"We're all in the same canoe, so take the stick out of (your) ass and join us..." declares Jeanette (Liz Zweifler), one-half of the Mongolian yurt-residing couple to her bible thumping, "Jesus is Magic" visiting conservative cousin-in-law Bill (Stephen Spencer) in the flawlessly written and performed gem The Quality of Life.
Bill is politely goaded by wife Dinah (Jennifer Joan Taylor) into leaving their Ohio home to visit her hut-residing cousin Jeanette and Neil (Ron Wells) in California, Jeanette's husband of twenty-nine years. Both couples have had a tragic turn of events -- Jeanette and Bill are mourning the loss of their daughter Cindy, who was brutally murdered by a psychopath; Jeanette and Neil are facing Neil's eminent demise from prostate cancer and the loss of their home and possessions to a wildfire.
From immediate onset onto Neil & Jeannette's property line, it's transparent that this visit will be slightly to horrifically uncomfortable for the four. The women have not seen one another in years, and there's only so much small talk that can be made about their shared memories of mutual childhoods and dead relatives. Bill is uptight, unemotional and a rules-are-rules kind of fellow, the "kind of fellow" who takes to sitting in their rental car when Neil treats himself for pain and nauseas with medical marijuana; and "they" live in a hut, for goodness sake.
Polite uncomfortable small talk makes its way to rabidly uncomfortable large talk when Neil tells Bill and Dinah of his plans to end his life before unbearable pain and physical degeneration come to call on his already weak body. The men argue over their respective beliefs, with Bill taking on the Christian perspective, while Neil, as an agnostic, sees how and when he chooses to end his life as his decision to make alone. As Dinah and Bill settle into uncomfortable acceptance with Neil's plans and Jeannette's unwavering support, the finally resolved matter of Neil and Jeannette's missing cat drops the other proverbial shoe -- Jeannette's reveals her plan to end her life in conjunction with Neil ending his.
We get to witness a philosophical argument of who of us is genuine ownership of our lives; do we get to "end it all" because we don't want to be left behind; because we've had it so good that we cannot bear the idea of grief, loneliness, starting over; and the sober realization that there is no such thing as a "good death", as both couples experience the same fear, rage, resistance and systemic rage against personal betrayals under different settings. It is the revelation that death is always like a thief in the night, no matter the length of the evening.
Playwright Jane Anderson's makes a masterful stroke by layout and design that death is not sudden or drawn out, but incremental, and with the experience of each death in our lives, we experience our own death, a little bit at a time. Each of her characters must face their thoughts on life in its continuation, and moving on (or leaving the known world behind, as is Neil's case) with far greater urgency and mustered courage than what they've been doing -- speaking of their dear departed in hushed tones and holiday acknowledgements, as Dinah mocks with loathing, or viewing death like "it's some third world country to visit", as Neil lights into Jeannette over her romantic notions of "transitioning", a term she uses because the word "death" just doesn't have that spiritual panache for a woman who would rather "cheat grief".
The Quality of Life amazes in the performances of the four principals, reminiscent of the Mike Nichols'-directed film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The actors pull their performances up-from-their-guts, and provide us with a mirror image of our own fear-and-loathing. Director Lisa D. Mortensen keeps the pace tight and all eyes transfixed, and successfully translates Anderson's words into a sublime aftertaste we leave The Den with, reminding ourselves that for all of our vestment in safety and smugness, for all of our bickering over "Jesus is Magic" vs. "Spiritual but no Religion for Us, Please", neither side has the answers to life, let alone death and I was in awe by the performances and production quality, and found myself wrenched to every moment like a washer to a pipe. The Quality of Life is very deserving of your precious time.
The Quality of Life by Jane Anderson, directed by Lia D. Mortensen, playing now through December 1 at The Den Theater's new home at 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. The Quality of Life features ensemble members Ron Wells and Liz Zweifler with Steve Spencer and Jennifer Joan Taylor. Tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com.