In Jane Anderson’s searing “The Quality of Life,” which runs through March 26 at Eugene’s Very Little Theatre, two wildly dissimilar couples find themselves bound together by unfathomable tragedies both large and small.
As the play begins, good-hearted Midwesterner Dinah (Tere Tronson) and her uptight conservative husband, Bill (David Smith), decide to visit relatives they haven’t seen for years, free spirited professor Neil (John White) and his artist/poet wife, Jeannette (Storm Kennedy).
Talk about dropping a match into the gasoline. This is a collision not only of culture but of suffering, and even sometimes a contest of pain. Dinah and Bill are still paralyzed by grief a year after the death of their daughter, murdered by a psychopath; Neil and Jeannette’s home in California’s Berkeley hills has recently been destroyed by a wild fire, in which their cat remains missing some months after the conflagration. And, oh yes, Neil is terminally ill with cancer.
Neil and Jeannette live in a yurt amid the burned out wreckage of their former home, and talk tendentiously about the joy of letting go their possessions, while using a composting outhouse and an outdoor kitchen as the clock is ticking on Neil’s spreading prostate cancer.
All this unlikely ponderousness serves up exquisitely fertile ground for Anderson’s four characters, who meet and talk and drink and even sample some illicit marijuana as they try desperately to come to terms with suffering and death – past, present and impending.
Carol Horne Dennis directs, keeping what could be a talky play focused on heart instead of issues, all on a minimal set designed by Mollie Clevidence, which – with its burned out trees and other wreckage from the fire – seems to set much of the action in Hell.
The obvious star of this show is Storm Kennedy, who does a spot-on energetic performance as Jeannette. Her New Ageish relationship with her dying husband is so intense that deeply Christian Bill dismisses them, at one point, as a “cult of two.”
But the rest of the cast are no slouches. John White, especially, is charming and smarmy as the charismatic professor – you can just guess he wowed the coeds – who uses his intellect to cope with his own death.
I don’t want to give away the plot, but the sense of despair generated by this foursome is so deep by the end of the first act that you wonder whether it’s possible to pull the story out of its hopelessness in time for the audience to get home before dawn.
But Act II kicks off with a giant role reversal. We begin, for the first time, to appreciate some of the humanity underlying Bill and Dinah’s born-again Christianity, and in the end we’re left with a message of realistic, negotiated hope.
I loved this play from start to finish. Redemption may come a little suddenly at the end, but finding it is worth every minute of the journey.