Common Ground

In The Quality of Life, liberals and conservatives can both have their hearts broken.

Most people regard the notion that someone can die from a broken heart with skepticism, but artists tend to be more open-minded about the idea. Shakespeare's repentant Roman soldier, Enobarbus, expires out of shame at having betrayed his beloved leader in Antony and Cleopatra. John Donne ruminates on the theme of lovelorn death in his poem "The Broken Heart," as does George Bernard Shaw in Heartbreak House: "When your heart is broken, your boats are burned: Nothing matters any more. It is the end of happiness and the beginning of peace."

Devotion doesn't actually cause any deaths in The Quality of Life, though all four of the characters in Jane Anderson's play come close to expiring at the thought of losing (or having literally lost) a loved one. Anderson's well-crafted though ultimately unsatisfactory drama offers a wide-ranging and at times profound meditation on the devastating impact of grief on close relationships.

Set in suburban Ohio and the Northern California hills, The Quality of Life contrasts the existences of two very different Baby Boomer couples: churchgoing, conservative Midwesterners Dinah and Bill (a warm JoBeth Williams and dogged Steven Culp), and agnostic, liberal left coasters Jeannette and Neil (a sprightly Laurie Metcalf and low-key Dennis Boutsikaris). Besides being blood relations — the women are cousins — the couples appear to have about as much in common as the romancing duetters in the famous George and Ira Gershwin song, "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off." The Ohioans believe in heaven, the Californians in cosmic release; Chinese takeout is exotic fare for the Ohioans, while seaweed and quinoa are everyday foods for the Californians; the Ohioans oppose drugs of all kinds, while the Californians are certified potheads and prolific imbibers of Sonoma wine.

Dinah (JoBeth Williams) comforts her cousin, Jeanette (Laurie Metcalf).
Kevin Berne
Dinah (JoBeth Williams) comforts her cousin, Jeanette (Laurie Metcalf).

Details

Through Nov. 23. Tickets are $17-$82; call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.
American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary (at Taylor), S.F.

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Yet as different (and clichéd) as they may be, the couples are united in one crucial way: They've both experienced a run of rotten luck. When we meet Dinah and Bill in their comfy, plaid-sofa'd living room at the play's start, they're struggling to pull their lives together following the brutal murder of their only child a year previously. Jeannette and Neil have also endured their fair share of recent hardship: Their house burned to the ground in a rampaging brush fire, so they're currently homeless and camping out in the wild. To make matters worse, Neil is suffering from terminal cancer and doesn't have long to live. In the spirit of mutual consolation, Jeannette invites her long-lost cousin and her husband to visit. Before long, the Ohioans find themselves standing on a balmy Californian hillside, staring at a bunch of charred trees, a makeshift outdoor kitchen, and a full-sized Mongolian yurt.

Death hovers over The Quality of Life like the leader of a neutral country in wartime. The characters try with all their might to bend the Grim Reaper to their contrasting causes, but he remains intractable. Having experienced the worst of heartbreaks, Dinah and Bill come close to giving up when their daughter is killed. But religion keeps them going. Suicide is a sin to these believers; they see it as their duty to face the day, even though they often wish for night. This endurance takes a toll on their marriage. Dinah sobs and knits and knits and sobs, while Bill retreats into a manly, lawn-mowing silence. Agnostics Jeannette and Neil, meanwhile, feel differently about death. With Neil on the way out, the pair takes a happy-clappy, romanticized view of the great beyond. They appear to have everything perfectly planned, and seem completely at peace with the inevitable. But when news of the death of their cat causes Jeannette to crumple like a winter leaf, they are forced to acknowledge that there is no such thing as a painless death where attachment is concerned.

Even though the play is entertaining and the production moves rhythmically, The Quality of Life feels stone cold in one important way. The problem is that instead of telling us a story, Anderson uses the medium of drama to test opposing theories about love, grief, and death. The stereotyped characters are symbols created to espouse conflicting viewpoints (Christian vs. agnostic; conservative vs. liberal) rather than full-fledged dramatic beings. We might laugh along with Jeannette and Neil when they describe Neil's eccentric parents, or understand why Dinah and Bill value their new church, but it's hard to connect with these people and their pain fully.

Recent studies have shown that death resulting from a broken heart isn't just a poetic ruse. The media is full of stories of "broken heart syndrome," where spouses die a short time after their husbands or wives. Scientists at Glasgow and Johns Hopkins universities have undertaken studies in recent years demonstrating the link between the death of loved ones and potentially fatal stress hormone levels in the bereaved people left behind. If Anderson's play tells us anything about this phenomenon, it's that we're all equally destined to suffer sooner or later. Regardless of whether we believe in the survival of the fittest or St. Peter, the pain of losing the most important people in our lives is just the same, and our mechanisms for coping are woefully inadequate.

 
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