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The Quality of Life: A Play about Mortality, Review

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The Quality of Life at Smith College in Northampton

Grief and Mortality at the Forefront of a New Play

Cate Damon and Laurie Dawn in New Century Theatre’s The Quality of Life. Photo Courtesy Jon CrispinNo matter how different we as humans are, death is the great equalizer. And yet the question of how we deal with death is dealt with differently from person to person. This relationship with our indubitable fates is the subject of The Quality of Life, a play written by Jane Anderson and being performed at the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts at Smith College in Northampton through August 4th. In it, two cousins decide to meet up to help each other out in their individual times of need. One cousin, Dinah, has lost her daughter at the hands of a serial killer. The other cousin, Jeanette, has lost her home in a forest fire and her husband is dying of cancer.  And so Dinah and her husband Bill take a trip from their home in Ohio out to Berkeley, California to visit Jeannette and her ailing husband Neil.

The two couples are markedly different. Dinah and Bill are born again Christians and Jeannette and Neil are crunchy new age hippies. From the start I was nervous that this play would become an anti-Christian production, one which mocks the faith of the modern man, and paints it as ignorant. And indeed Jeannette and Neil are very glib about addressing their visitor’s newfound faith. We can sense that as Neil questions Bill about his belief system that there is a teasing tone involved of which Bill is too sure of himself to guess. It seems that Neil and Jeannette have a perfect marriage, and that they are each other’s religion. On the other hand Dinah and Bill do not seem to get along at all; losing their daughter seems to have crippled their love for each other. I thought it was a bit unnecessary that their daughter was killed by a serial killer, as if the writer was simply trying to emphasize the pain of death. There are moments when Bill complains that he won’t even be able to see his daughter’s killer die of execution because he was put in jail due to insanity. The strength of the play seemed to take place in the present moment as the couples struggle with their respective situations, and their dwelling on the details of how it happened felt unreal.

The set for the play was incredible. On the front left side of the stage was the front porch, and the handrail is burnt and melted into a curve from where the fire ripped through. In the background are the ruins of their house. And in the foreground is a picnic table and a few chairs, and a tent in which the homeless married couple is living. Their acceptance of their situation is a quality which marks them throughout the whole play as smugly without structure. They are free-thinking and arrogant and Bill and Dinah are religious and modest, creating a type of power struggle between ideals as the play progresses, something which even death does not slow down or impede.

We learn that Neil is planning on killing himself before the cancer can incapacitate him. Bill and Dinah take issue with this at first, but can’t dissuade him from his decision. Given the talks of religion that the couples have had, the decision to commit suicide is one of awkwardness. Then later, as Jeannette and Dinah are sitting together, Dinah is telling Jeannette of how she can stay with her when Neil passes. Jeannette becomes impatient and says that she won’t be doing that, and that the only reason they are together now is because of their problems…and that she is going to kill herself along with Neil.   This is the moment during which I asked myself “Why would she be so cruel and tell her cousin this?” It got to the point where I so thoroughly hated Jeannette and would not even care if she did kill herself, making the second half of the play a bit trite.

New Century Theatre production of The Quality of Life. Photo Courtesy Jon CrispinWhen Bill finds out about Jeannette’s decision to commit suicide the two have a blow up argument in which Bill tells her that she is going to burn in hell. This wakes up Neil who comes out and asks what has happened. When Neil says that he tried to talk her out of it, Bill asks “what kind of a man lets his wife win an argument?” The best scene of the play came following this moment, after Bill and Dinah leave. Neil has an epiphany and tells his wife that she can’t commit suicide and that it doesn’t make sense to idealize death, and that they are just both going to be dead afterwards since they don’t believe in heaven. He will stay alive and die a natural death if she won’t accept that. It was relieving to see the myth of dying together defrauded, and to see Jeannette suffer with the death as she blows up and becomes angry, to see the normal responses to death, and not the glorified spectacle of being together even in death.

In the second half of the play we get to see the redemption of the religious character, see that both sides have their faults, and that death brings these out to their extreme. But we also see that death brings out people’s good qualities ultimately, as we see Bill convince Jeannette not to commit suicide. During a conversation Jeannette becomes exasperated and alludes to Bill’s lack of depth. Bill finally impresses on her his emotional aptness, saying “I’m human too god-damn it!” His explanation of having had to tend to Dinah for months after their daughter’s death paints a side of him which before was covered by his stubborn insistence on religious means and inability to loosen up.

The play dragged on and was pure dialogue. It all took place on that one camp site and it is very hard for a play to have engaging enough dialogue to carry the scene. At times it felt as if the play was resting too heavily on the couple’s different lifestyles, and the resulting friction, nearly making parodies of real lifestyles.

All in all, I was just grateful that the director did not too heavily indict the personalities of religious folks. If anything it felt as if the play was pretty hard on modern hippies, painting them as snooty elitists who smirk at the ways of moderate folks. The actors in the production Laurie Dawn, Sam Rush, Cate Damon, and David Mason were all good, but no amount of good acting could have saved this play from falling into the clichés of plays about death. As Jeannette grips Neil who is dying and says “Once you’re gone I’ll live for us both” I thought about how she had changed as a character, was somewhat satisfied, but mainly wished it hadn’t taken so long as the actors bowed and we clapped for a play I would give a B plus.

The Quality of Life runs through August 4, 2012 at the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts at Smith College in Northampton. Tickets are $29/$27 for Seniors (65 and up), with Student Rush tickets of $15 available same day at the door only. Call 413-585-3220 or visit for times and further information.

Ezra Prior is a Contributor to The Free George. Photos Courtesy of Jon Crispin.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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