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Review: 'The Quality of Life'

(c) For All Events

November 2, 2008

By Lynn Ruth Miller

This is a play about grief and how helpless we feel when we are facing loss. Obviously, it is a topic we all need to address so we can understand the bell curve our emotions take when someone we love passes away. That is why THE QUALITY OF LIFE had the potential to be a blockbuster if the author had only delved more deeply into the characters she was creating instead of concentrating on the problems they faced. She says, "There is a Buddhist belief that suffering is just a fact of life, and it is your job to take whatever grief or pain that life hands you and find a way to move through it." And she goes on to ask, "Are we obliged to keep living if the quality of our lives is so absolutely awful?"

THE QUALITY OF LIFE explores these questions and attempts to illustrate what that Buddhist belief really means in human terms when people face intolerable grief. Are we strong enough to bear up under our tragedies and get on with our lives? Do we have the right to say, "I don't want to face what my life is going to be from now on"? AND if one decides life has no more value, is it a sign of weakness or strength to end it? How great is the cost of cruel and senseless suffering to the survival of our existing relationships and what scars inevitably remain?

These are all valid philosophical questions well worth deep, penetrating discussion. However, when one writes a theater piece, we need to understand the characters on stage and see them as real people, not generalized stereotypes. The actors must be so vulnerable that we believe their anguish and cry with them. They must be so human we cannot predict their reactions because real human beings have so many contradicting motivations. The dialogue should stimulate each viewer to ponder the value of his own life and how he relates to those he loves. Sadly, except for a few isolated instances, the plot line was one that has been done so many times that it held no surprises for the audience, no revelations or new insights into truth.

The cast in this production was excellent. Each actor managed to make these four cardboard personas as moving and sympathetic as they could and I applaud all four of them. It isn't easy to deliver lines so predictable that this reviewer at least anticipated the response to every remark they made. We have the stupid, but positive, pretty little Midwestern girl (Dinah played by JoBeth Williams) who loves canning, gardening and all wholesome pleasures and trusts in Jesus with all her heart. We have her born again Christian fundamentalist husband (Bill played by Steven Culp) who is rigid, opinionated and bonded to the word of the Bible as if it were his Siamese twin. Their counterparts are Neil, (Dennis Boutsikaris) an anthropology professor dying of terminal cancer and his Bohemian, free spirited wife, Jeannette (Laurie Metcalf) both of whom meditate, conform to non-conformity, are one with nature and intellectual atheists to the core. Put these four soap opera figures on a stage together and you know the quips that are coming, the inevitable vegetarian concoctions of sprouts and roots that offend the Midwestern conception of food and the laughs we liberal sophisticated people are going to enjoy at the expense of the Ohio hicks and the contrast between two sharply opposed belief systems. We approve of Neil smoking medical Marijuana and laugh at Bill's huffy (and very middle class) exit to his truck to listen to the game. We understand why Jeanette wants to join her husband in death and we scoff at the narrow conservative, religious dogma the two Midwesterners use to justify their horror at the "sin" of a healthy human being considering suicide. Watching the antics on stage made me feel like I had just tuned in to a reality show on television where every emotion was exaggerated by characters sketched in but not fleshed out.

The plot contrasts Bill and Dinah who are grieving over the senseless murder of their daughter with Jeannette and Neil happily housed in a yurt after their home was destroyed in a devastating fire. Neil and Jeanette are dealing with Neil's certain death by planning a painless exit from life preceded by a carefully worded farewell letter and a huge, happy party. Jeannette has decided to join her husband in death because life without him is unthinkable to her. That is a lot of tragedy to deal with in two hours and if you are going to care whether any of them live or die, you need to understand them as complete human beings whose very being is worth preserving. When Desdemona finally dies, I am torn apart because I have lived through her descent from Othello's grace and seen her disillusionment develop as she recognizes who her husband really is and how his doubt and insecurities destroy them both. However, in this work, I am very sorry Neil is so sick but his loss is not a tragedy to me. Jeannette is a funny hippie who is out in left field and I am not sympathetic to her because I don't know what she really feels. I only hear her smart remarks and brittle repartee. The one I related to most closely was Dinah because at least her emotions were recognizable and I saw how they had developed.

There are wonderful moments in this play and I suspect as the run continues, the actors will find ways to be more convincing in their roles. Bill becomes vulnerable and real when describes why he fell in love with Dinah; Neill descends from his intellectual pinnacle when realizes that Janette must continue to pursue the dreams the two of them began. But these are only moments and are not sustained throughout the play. As I left, one member of the audience remarked, "What was all the fuss about? When someone dies, you don't have a choice. You go on with your life."

Exactly. This is a work that should be seen for its philosophical content and one that has more meaning in what it makes us think about after the final curtain. The author wanted to explore our ability to transform and grow through personal tragedy and indeed the play raises many questions, but doesn't answer much at all.

THE QUALITY OF LIFE continues until November 23.
Tuesdays-Saturdays @ 8pm
Matinees: Wednesdays, Saturdays & Sundays @ 2pm
WHERE: The American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA
TICKETS: 415 749 2228

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