Intrepid Theatre’s casting is so spot on, it’s as if Jane Anderson wrote her four-hander, The Quality of Life, for Jeffrey Jones (Neil), Deanna Driscoll (Jeanette), Tom Stephenson (Bill), and Maggie Carney (Dinah). Even their speech rhythms jibe. Together, the quartet defines ensemble acting, fluid, sharing, and, when called upon, taking stage, and holding nothing back.
Bill and Dinah, Midwesterners, lost their daughter in a brutal tragedy. They may, or may not, be coping: Dinah has bursts of tears; Bill mows the lawn.
Free-spirited Jeanette, Dinah’s cousin, lives in the Berkeley hills with husband Neil, a professor of anthropology. They too had a tragedy. A 40 foot wall of flames torched their home and all possessions except his reading glasses and her favorite pen.
Now they live on the blackened property in a yurt (“a Mongolian tent kind of thing”) with another tragedy looming. Neil will die of cancer. Soon.
Bill and Dinah decide to come west for a visit. Bill, who believes in Comparative Suffering, is convinced nothing can compare to losing Cindy. Neil and Jeanette, who says “people turn stupid around tragedy,” may have something that will.
So the playwright pits stereotypes against each other, right? Red state versus Blue state? Born-again Christers vs. laid-back Californian free thinkers? Provincial vs. Hip. That’s the formula most playwrights would use: guess who fails the tolerance test. Anderson turns that onion into an artichoke.
I urge lovers of theater to see this amazing production — and I recommend leaving stereotypes on I5. From a relaxed, picnic-like beginning, The Quality of Life builds to an inexorable shedding of stereotypes, personal myths: everything except eyeglass and ink pen essentials.
Neil wants to die with dignity. Thinner than a rail (the excellent Jeffrey Jones must have shed 40 pounds for the part) the “trickster-saint” will exit two weeks from Sunday. Wife Jeannette (Deanna Driscoll, achingly unforgettable) approves of Neil’s “self-release” — even more than expected. Fragile, empathetic Dinah (Maggie Carney, never ever better) tries to intercede. And stoic Bill (terrific, understated Tom Stephenson evolves from a stuffy second banana to a rock) must question everything he’s held dear.
The Quality of Life plumbs the deep questions so well it’s almost a running commentary on Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. At the same time, the show could almost qualify as a comedy. Like the themes, the unforced humor grows on the audience. At first the impulse feels as verboten as laughing in church. After a while — as when Bill refers to Neil and Jeannette as “a cult of two” – it’s ‘sure, why not?’
Intrepid is staging the piece at the Carlsbad Village Theatre, across the street from New Village Arts. Except for some lighting (yellows bleaching faces) and downstage right sound difficulties, director Christy Yael-Cox, set designer Michael McKeon, and the Intrepid crew have solved the potential problem of staging in an old movie house. And Mary Larson’s autumnal-hued costumes define character and set the right visual tone.
When a play that ventures into the “undiscovered country” comes along, critics usually append a patronizing caveat: “It’s, um, it’s about DEATH. But do go anyway.” But at its heart, it isn’t about death at all. It’s about the quality of life.