Two couples, one reeling from the horrific murder of their only daughter, the other coping with a terminal illness that is reaching its late stage, come together and confront their demons: This is the thumbiest of thumbnail sketches of The Quality of Life, a play by Jane Anderson that explores the specter of death, the lash of loss, the cycles of grief and how people make meaning amid chaos and crisis — in short, it’s about life itself.
But what strong, challenging work of art isn’t, in the final tally, about life itself? Digging deeper, then, we can see the specific rhythms and intimate concerns of Anderson’s dramatic comedy, now in production at Very Little Theatre under the able direction of Carol Horne Dennis:
Bill and Dinah (David Smith and Tere Tronson) are the quintessential Midwestern couple: buttoned-up, Protestant-proud, neighborly but skeptical in a politely pinched sort of way. Still in shock a year after their daughter’s death, they decide, a bit reluctantly, to fly from Ohio to the Berkeley Hills to visit Dinah’s free-spirited cousin Jeanette (Storm Kennedy), whose husband Neil (John White) has decided to end his life before cancer devours him entirely.
The action of the play takes place outside the yurt Jeanette and Neil have set up after their home was devoured by a wildfire. Amid this apocalyptic setting — with the couple’s burnt and melted possessions dangling from dead trees like ominous ornaments of loss — the couples struggle to make sense of their mutual burdens. They thrust and parry at each other, as they seek at once to understand and be understood; they manifest the stages of grief in confrontation, anger, bemusement and, finally, a besieged kind of rapprochement.
This is a beautifully disarming play. At first, it appears that Anderson is trafficking in broad stereotypes: Bill, the furiously devout Christian, berates the hippie-dippy Neil for his cosmological drift, attacking him in advance for the sin of suicide (as the audience chuckles with smug dismissal); Dinah, at once uptight and open-minded, gets stoned on Neil’s weed in an attempt to access the alien worldview of a pair of liberal NorCal tofu-munchers (as the audience chuckles with a knowing wink).
But grief, in its ravaging vulnerability and confusion, is as likely to bring healing as it is to unleash annihilation. As these two couples execute an existential waltz around their mutual incomprehension, a sort of thaw sets in, a warming amid the holocaust within and without. Could it be that Bill’s brimfire piety holds a truth Neil and Jeannette have conveniently ignored? And perhaps, in turn, might these middle-aged hipsters living in a hut hold a solution for Bill and Dinah’s marital paralysis?
VLT’s production treats The Quality of Life with just the right amount of dignity, honor and irreverence; it ekes out the play’s wry humor with gentle gestures of compassion and irony, and it digs deep when the play delves into heavy emotional territory, all without tripping into slapstick or melodrama. The cast is excellent across the board. It’s rare to see four actors so evenly balanced, so dynamically simpatico, and that’s exactly what is called for in this play about life, death and how we deal.
The Quality of Life plays through March 26 at the Very Little Theatre; tickets and info at TheVLT.com or 344-7751.