Have you ever noticed that most stories that appear, on the surface, to be all about death and dying, actually turn out to be all about life and living? It’s true. Think about Joan Didion’s memoir ‘The Year of Magical Thinking,’ or C.S. Lewis’s ‘A Grief Observed.’ What about Anne Tyler’s ‘The Accidental Tourist,’ or movies like ‘Heaven Can Wait,” ‘The Descendants,’ or Pixar’s ‘Up,’ or even plays like the recent ‘Fun Home’ and the obvious ‘Death of a Salesman.’
All of these stories use the inevitability of death and dying, and the trappings of grief, to cast a clear, comparative light on the many joys, privileges, and bittersweet consolations of surviving death, of finding a way through grief, of being alive.
In such a spirit of philosophical death-musing comes Jane Alexander’s deliciously rich drama The Quality of Life, now playing at Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma. Featuring four superb performances, the play is a beautifully-crafted series of alternately heavy and lighthearted discussions about death and life, and everything in between—culminating in a gorgeous two-part climax that is at once breathtaking in its poetic simplicity and stunning in its blunt clear-eyed wisdom.
Dinah and Bill—played by Susan Gundanas and Richard Pallaziol—are conservative Christians from the Midwest, each struggling in their own way with the recent brutal death of their teenage daughter.
When Dinah learns that her cousin Jeanette—played by Elly Lichenstein—has lost her Northern California home in a wildfire, and that her husband Neil—James Pelican—is in the final stages of cancer, the straight-laced Midwesterners decide to visit their hippy-dippy in-laws, and are stunned to find their hard-hit in-laws living blissfully in a yurt beside the blackened and skeletal remains of their house.
Dinah and Bill are in for another surprise when they learn that Neil, who inhales a great deal of pot as relief from the pain, plans to take his own life in a few weeks – after he and Jeanette throw one last blowout of a party.
What perhaps sounds depressing and heavy is anything but in Anderson’s lovely, humor-filled script. In fact, the level of intellectual debate that unfolds between this oppositional foursome is at times exhilarating, as this mismatched foursome power through a list of hot-button topics, from medical marijuana and right-to-die issues to the question of whether God actually truly has a plan for our lives.
The striking and unusual set, by Nina Ball, is truly impressive, all scorched timber at crazy angles on a patch of real dirt complete with a rather realistic campfire. And the lighting by Jon Tracy effectively gives a sense of time, from early morning to late evening.
Taylor Korobow’s sensitive direction is unfussy and clean, focusing on building intensity through the ever-shifting relationships of the all-too-human characters. Though an unnecessary opening sequence, set to Bob Dylan’s It’s Not Dark Yet, is more confusing and odd than engaging, and mainly just serves to delay the start of the action, Korobow’s work with her actors is marvelous, drawing effective and dialed down performances that are powerful without pushing too hard.
I encourage you to overlook what might sound like a downer, and take a chance on Quality of Life, a gripping, moving, funny and life affirming examination of the ways that death, ironically enough, does have ways to remind us that life, for all its shocks and snares and unhappy twists, really is worth living, and worth savoring, right to the end.
‘Quality of Life’ runs through October 30 at Cinnabar Theater, cinnabaretheater.org
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