The Den Theatre’s adaptation of Jane Anderson’s play “The Quality of Life” addresses many complex and often unspoken concerns baby boomers face as they begin to consider the end of life. The play focuses on Dinah and Bill (Jennifer Joan Taylor, Stephen Spencer), a devout, evangelical and conservative married couple from Ohio. They visit their freethinking agnostic cousins, Jeannette and Neil, (Liz Zweifler, Ron Wells) after a forest fire destroys their California home.
Dinah and Bill recently lost a young-adult daughter, their only child, to an unspeakable crime, and their own relationship has been strained since. Neil is facing late-stage prostate cancer, and Jeannette is unable to imagine living her life without him.
Neil uses marijuana to dull his cancer pain, a practice Bill judges harshly. When Bill and Dinah learn of Neil’s plans to end his own life in the coming weeks, the couple’s visit to California is complicated even more.
The couples’ ideologies clash as they attempt to work through their different beliefs about religion, medical marijuana, assisted death, morality and mortality- all within feet of the audience. Audiences become so invested in the characters that tears flow, an experience the actors call cathartic.
Life Matters Media spoke with the cast about their experiences with the play.
Why is discussing the end of life taboo in America?
Spencer: I think it’s such a cultural thing. I have friends who are more like Neil and Jeannette who’ve had a death in their family. They read through the Tibetan Book of the Dead and chanted and their whole family was around. They made a beauty of death because they saw it as a passing. In America, death is taboo. A play like this opens up the discussion.
Wells: I think it has a lot to do with our Puritanical history, our religion. It seems to me that people elsewhere in the world, particularly in Europe, have a healthier view of life and death. A lot of it gets tied up in our beliefs and everyone wants to live. I think this play, at the heart of it all, is about “how do you say goodbye?”
Taylor: Because it hurts. We don’t like to talk about things that hurt us. I love being in a play that provokes. It’s been a dream come true to be part of a story that’s so important. I’ve met people who’ve lost their children and came to this play. But they left feeling relief, in a cathartic way.
Zweifler: I’ve been nervous about people coming to see it for that reason. But they seem to really like it.
How do you feel about laws such as Question 2, which was just voted down in Massachusetts? It would have allowed physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs to some willing terminally ill patients.
Zweifler: I’m open to it, but when someone gets to decide one’s fate, that’s worrisome. But I like the idea of when it’s your time, you get to decide. But the balancing act is when do you let people go? There are new medical technologies that can keep people alive.
Wells: I have no problems with the issue at all. But I understand how people could fear these types of laws.
Taylor: I was raised Catholic and was raised to believe that suicide is a sin, and that you go to hell if you do it. Some of that is stuck in me. I don’t like the idea of someone being able to end one’s life. I like the idea of comfort at the end of life. I would probably not vote for it, but you shouldn’t have to die in pain. Not when there are good drugs around.
Do you identify with your characters?
Taylor: I’m more like Dinah than I would have ever thought. I think of myself as this liberal person, but I have this little conservative side to myself. I never really thought of it until I played Dinah. I would say things that Dinah would say. I thought I was Jeannette.
Wells: Neil is the most personal role I’ve ever played. Neil is the man I want to be. I see a lot of myself in him.
Zweifler: I definitely have Jeannette characteristics but I’m not as hard on people as Jeannette is.
The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones recommends this adaption. “In a second-floor walk-up, you’ll find honest Chicago acting, deep thoughts, honest writing about societal change and compassion for the messiness of all our value systems, let alone the way we want to face our end,” he wrote in his three-star review.
The Chicago Theatre Review’s Rachel Parent has called the play ”a strong note in a beautiful place.”
Tickets are available here.
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