Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
The Quality of Life
The audience attending the first performance of the New Mexico Actors Lab production of Jane Anderson's The Quality of Life walked into Teatro Paraguas with the smoke of the nearby Jemez Mountains fire pungently self-evident, to behold a stage set conveying the charred remains of what was once Jeanette and Neil's beautiful home in the Berkeley Hillsthe aftermath of a different fire in a different state that also seems to be perpetually burning itself up. In a set, beautifully and meticulously rendered by the production's co-director Robert Benedetti and prop designer Talia Pura to give us something halfway between a campsite and a makeshift attempt at outdoor homemaking, two couples with a consanguineous connection, make of a reunion an emotionally unraveling clash of both opposing value systems and philosophies about life itself.
Dinah and Bill from Ohio have lost their only childthe college-age Cindy, who was brutally murdered. The couple is trying to climb back from a parent's worst nightmare. Jeanette and Neil live in northern California, Neila college professorin the last stages of terminal cancer. The latter couple, enlivened by wildly free-spirited Jeanette, reveal to their cousins Neil's decision to act proactively before he is forced to endure a level of pain that will destroy the quality of his life. Ultimately, Jeanette reveals to Dinah an important decision she has made about her own life.
Ms. Anderson's play addresses issues as fraught with serious social relevance and personal consequence as the right-to-die, the power (or foolhardiness) of religious belief as buttress and balm, and the now almost quaint considerations surrounding the use of medical marijuana. Bill, like his wife a born-again Christian, has a problem with Neil's use of it to address his pain. Bill's objections ring hollow now, ten years after the premiere of Anderson's play, especially since California has now joined the growing number of states that have taken the even more dramatic step of legalizing recreational pot.
It is Bill and Dinah's faith, steeped as it is in the tenets of social conservatism, that tends to undermine the salience of this otherwise trenchant and emotionally compelling script. Anderson herself admitted that, even though she ought to write about "born-again characters, fairly," she had to wrestle with their on-stage realization through multiple rewrites. This shows in how she's written the overly priggish Bill and his Christian sloganeering wife Dinah. And yet, Jody Durham and Patrick Briggs bring to this couple such a raw honesty, and presentation of such palpable pain accompanying their characters' terrible loss, that their performances create a level of poignancy and emotional relevancy which far overcomes the shortcomings in the script.
As Jeanette and Neil, characters who ring true in nearly all of their staged moments (partially, perhaps, because they remind us of so many of the New Age earth-passengers we know and love here in the Land of Enchantment), powerful lines about personal choice and the transcendence of deeply felt love between life partners are made excruciatingly real. Nicholas Ballas, as Neil, holds his character's true feelings at times very close to the vest, only to unleash them at moments that surprise and connect. Barbara Hatch gives us a wonderful Jeanette, who wears her emotions on her sleeve in openhearted spiritedness and with an emotive transparency that pulls the audience to her side with little effort at all.
As with all of the New Mexico Actors Lab's productions, it is the attention to aesthetic detail in the presentation that creates a welcome level of professionalism seldom seen in small, intimate theater settings. Benedetti told me that in his co-direction of the play with Ballas, it was their desire to bring the audience to a state of proximity to the story emulative of film's potential for a close-up examination of character and situation. As such, precision in the scenic environment abounds. Bill, who lives with Dinah in Cincinnati, reads the Cincinnati Herald. Dinah takes gifts for her cousins in a Dick-and-Jane baga bag that perhaps was acquired long ago when their own beloved daughter Cindy was just a girl. The yurt, which Jeanette and Bill have turned into their sheltered bedroom, indeed looks exactly like a yurt. Theatrical verisimilitude is NMAL's hallmark.
Skip Rapoport's lighting creates the proper mood: a sense of foreboding, but without an overwhelming sense of oppressiveness.
The Quality of Life is a play about both the management of death (when circumstances afford one the opportunity to dictate how that should be effected) and about the importance of navigating through lives that at times seem hardly worth surviving. Each character at one point in the play entertains either tangibly or philosophically the prospect of ending his or her own life. But this fine cast and the excellent directorial choices that inform their performances remind us that the play is also about something else: how to manage the ravages of grief. One couple is dealing with grief over the loss of a child. Another couple is anticipating the grief that will ensue from a death differently manifested.
At the first performance of this moving play, made even more emotionally gripping by this top-notch production, a singed landscape populated by characters with scorched hearts fused metaphor to reality in a way that only theater can accomplish. And the literal smell of smoke and not so distant fire added fortuitous embroidery to a powerful evening of theater.
The Quality of Life, directed by Nicholas Ballas and Robert Benedetti, is being performed at Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie B, Santa Fe. Thursday through Saturday at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00, with special pay-what-you wish performance on Wednesday, June 28 at 7:30. Through July 2, 2017. Info at www.teatroparaguas.org or 505-424-1601. The running time is slightly under two hours, including one intermission.