- The Washington Times - Friday, September 25, 2009

The airwaves and cyberspace are clogged with hot air. Anybody and everybody and their cat Consuelo are expressing their opinions, venting, updating their Facebook status and, of course, twittering.

You might think the theater is a refuge from this rash of talking heads, but the spate of debate has extended to the footlights.

“The Quality of Life,” Arena Stage’s first show of the season, doesn’t come across as a play but as a cable talk show on an unusually atmospheric set — one featuring participants far more lively and complex than what you normally see on TV.

Not to denigrate the human suffering permeating Jane Anderson’s drama. The two couples who reunite in a charred forest are palpably grieving and grappling with issues of death, guilt, depression and anger. It’s just the way these issues are presented that seems pat and manufactured — and, in the process, does not do justice to the piercing heartache the characters are experiencing.

“The Quality of Life” is set on what remains of Jeannette (Johanna Day) and Neil’s (Stephen Schnetzer) Northern California compound. Bohemian, liberal and granola-crunchy, Jeannette and Neil were living the high life — both literally and figuratively — outside Berkeley until fire and cancer struck. Now they’re hunkering down in a makeshift yurt while Neil is in the last stages of terminal illness and determined to enjoy every last juicy bit of their time together.

In contrast, we have Jeannette’s relatives visiting from the Midwest — cousin Dinah (Annette O’Toole) and her husband, Bill (Kevin O’Rourke), embodying nearly every conservative heartland cliche you can muster. Dinah makes tacky crafts and does canning, while Bill is one of those men of few words who would rather talk Home Depot than discuss feelings.

Oh, and did we mention they’re born-again Christians, having embraced faith after the brutal murder of their daughter?

Now that the sides are chosen, “The Quality of Life” becomes merely a pretense for the foursome to jaw about such topics as medical marijuana and alternative medicine (Bill, to no one’s surprise, is against them), suicide (Guess which two think it is a one-way ticket to damnation?), religion (Jeannette and Neil are “spiritual”; perhaps the Tibetan prayer flags fluttering over their heads was our first clue) and whether it is possible to have too much pleasure (Jeannette and Neil are happy hedonists. Who knew?).

The airing of these issues is the playwright’s excuse to exercise the patent TV device of having one glib character lob well-timed zingers. And, in this case, it’s Jeannette. It’s about as interesting as watching bubble gum harden on the pavement … only without the suspense factor.

You wonder: Will these people ever stop behaving as though they’re trapped in a redwoods version of “Dr. Phil”?

To say the cast goes beyond the confines of the script is an understatement. Miss O’Toole is astounding as the chatty, conflicted Dinah, who seems to take voracious comfort in religion until the day’s events awaken an unslakable rage and dissatisfaction within her. As her husband, Mr. O’Rourke brings gentle comedy to Bill’s reticence. However, when it’s time to express emotion, he does so with perfect calibration.

Miss Day comes off like the sexy earth mother who has it all together — until she makes you see the heartsickness of Jeannette, the selfishness and the greed. Mr. Schnetzer’s Neil is the play’s soul. He’s a man almost on the outskirts of life who still seeks undiminished passion and comfort.

“The Quality of Life” offers a rich examination into the vagaries of grief, as expressed through the extraordinary acting — if you can get beyond the words.

★★½

WHAT: “The Quality of Life,” by Jane Anderson, directed by Lisa Peterson

WHERE: Arena Stage at Crystal City, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Selected weekday matinees at noon. Through Oct. 18.

TICKETS: $25 to $66

PHONE: 202/488-3300

WEB SITE: www.arenastage.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide