How one deals with extreme loss is a varied animal. Some use dogged denial, others spidery humor. Some simply hibernate their days away in an emotional, bedridden coma. All these methods of preservation are explored with sharp humor and bone chilling honesty in The Den Theatre’s exquisite production of Jane Anderson’s “The Quality of Life.”
After the violent murder of their only child, Dinah and Bill, a conservative Christian couple, are sent reeling. Eager to heal, Dinah arranges a visit with her wild child cousin, Jeannette. After a devastating fire, Jeannette is living in a tent with her adventurer husband, Neil, on their desert property. This tragedy, compounded with Neil’s impending death from stomach cancer, seemingly has done little to dampen the couple’s spirits. While Dinah and Bill seem astonished by their relatives’ positivity, the couples’ extreme differences soon bring about hidden feelings. Harsh realities, on both sides, are soon exposed.
Award-winning writer Anderson mines as much comedy from the situation as her nimble pen allows. In fact, audiences may find themselves so drained, alternating tears and laughter, during her near perfect first act that the second act may lose a bit of its dramatic drive. A few too many denouements dampen the power of her ending, as well. Still, this is superior writing that exposes myriad levels within it’s given circumstances.
Skilled director Lia Mortensen, meanwhile, uses her deep insight to assure that this Chicago premiere is one of the finest productions that the entire theater season has had to offer. With a discerning eye and emotional grace, she guides her seasoned cast to imaginatively layered performances.
As the rigid Bill, Stephen Spencer radiates with volatility and surprisingly soft emotional valleys. Ron Wells’ magnetic Neil is a study of calm virility and healing energy, a balm in the face of stormy landscapes. The mesmerizing Jennifer Taylor (whom eagle eyed soap lovers may recognize as Detective Chris Egan from the final years of “The Edge of Night”) fully encapsulates all the sensitive mysteries of her tortured Dinah. Lastly, rounding out an exceptional ensemble, Liz Zweifler’s Jeanette is a smoky treat, a passionate force of nature in every moment that she inhibits.
“The Quality of Life” runs through Dec. 1 at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Avenue, in Chicago’s historic Wicker Park. Tickets are $25 and are available at www.brownpapertickets.com.
– Brian Kirst