At Arena, a 'Quality' of Dutiful Earnestness
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 21, 2009
"The Quality of Life" is the theatrical equivalent of wheat germ. It's got nutritional value, but you have to wonder: Who really wants to sit down to it on a Saturday night?
The subjects of playwright Jane Anderson's earnest endeavor all border on the grave: Coping with terminal cancer. Grief over a slain child. Euthanasia. Of course, there's nothing objectionable about trying to treat thorny topics compassionately on the stage, a feat Anderson accomplishes in this admittedly well-acted production, directed by Lisa Peterson at Arena Stage in Crystal City.
But the evening has little going for it dramatically, aside from good intentions -- as if plays were meant to be vetted by a blue-ribbon panel of ethicists. You've seen work very much in the spirit of "The Quality of Life" a thousand times before on cable, in the kinds of movies that put human faces on controversial social issues by apportioning the debate to a passel of characters, each with a representative point of view.
In this case, the debaters are a New Age-y, green-living California couple (Johanna Day and Stephen Schnetzer) and their born-again Christian cousins from the Midwest (Annette O'Toole and Kevin O'Rourke), who've come West for a visit. Only there's not much to see: The home of Day's Jeannette and Schnetzer's Neil has been consumed in one of those raging California wildfires and now they are living al fresco, with a tentlike yurt pitched amid the ruins of the house.
The ashes of devastating events float down over all of these people. (And the symmetry of the tragedies comes across as a little hokey.) Neil, having rejected further chemotherapy, is suffering through the final stage of cancer; he and Jeannette are all about celebrating Neil's last days as if such endings can be wrung out with nothing but good fellowship. O'Toole's Dinah and O'Rourke's Bill, meanwhile, are in the grips of stone-cold despair, the result of their only daughter's brutal murder.
So they sit under the Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags Jeannette and Neil have strung up among the charred trees, engaging in a series of arguments like public-access talk show participants, over the many topics that divide them: Is it okay to smoke medical marijuana? Can the taking of one's own life ever be justified? Does Heaven exist?
"Your awareness of God: How exactly do you experience it?" Neil asks of Bill, at one point in the colloquy. "Listen!" Jeannette protests later, "I love my life! I love it fiercely!" after her own shocking plan for herself is disclosed. Around and around they go, talking and talking, in ways intended to illuminate how they're all caring people, pushed to the devastating edge. It's all very lucid and the discussion all very civilized. You wait for the crackle and then you remember: The fire has already been extinguished.
Peterson's staging is perfectly competent. Her actors have firm handles on these characters. O'Toole is particularly capable as the stricken Dinah; every so often, her placid good humor is enlivened by a touch of manic energy -- the flicker of one who might combust with grief. O'Rourke is commendably straightforward in conveying Bill's sanctimony, and Day and Schnetzer persuade you of Jeannette and Neil's belief in the romantic cocoon they've spun for themselves.
Set designer Neil Patel's rustic encampment wittily embodies the idea of roughing it the Left Coast way. Though a lot of care has been taken with Anderson's gentle work, the impact feels negligible. A play can take place in the middle of the woods, it seems, and not make much of a sound.
The Quality of Life, by Jane Anderson. Directed by Lisa Peterson. Costumes, Ilona Somogyi; lighting, Alexander V. Nichols; sound and original music, John Gromada. About 2 hours 10 minutes.