Review: Play looks into loss and what makes life worth living

By Matthew Yde / For The Journal

 Kristín Hansen, Julia Thudium, Tom Schuch, Vic Browder. All photos Shawna Baker Photography

Kristín Hansen, Julia Thudium, Tom Schuch, Vic Browder. All photos Shawna Baker Photography

As we settle into another election season and the culture wars play out every night on our television screens, Americans are more aware than ever that our country is divided.

Jane Anderson, better-known for her film and television writing, has written an interesting play that provides another perspective on this perennial American topic.

The play, “The Quality of Life,” is receiving its Southwestern premiere at Mother Road Theatre.

Having lost their only daughter in a brutal act of violence, a strait-laced Christian couple from Ohio, Bill and Dinah, travel to California to visit relatives who have themselves experienced tragedy recently.

Neil and Jeannette have lost their home in a forest fire but have made peace with the loss by embracing a lifestyle free of the encumbrances of modern consumer culture. They live on their land in a yurt and go without the amenities of modern life.

They do, however, have plenty of red wine and marijuana. The uptight Bill says, “You’re like a cult of two.” But the loss of their home is nothing compared with the much larger loss the couple face as Neil battles late-stage cancer.

The play explores such issues as euthanasia and with it what makes life worth living, even amid great suffering.

Because all human beings face loss and impending death and have to make difficult moral decisions, Anderson uses these issues to transcend the artificial boundaries that divide us. She is more interested in what unites. The joy of the play is to experience these divided couples argue and fight but eventually draw closer.

“The Quality of Life,” directed by David Sinkus, features four talented Mother Road company members on stage together for the first time since the company was formed eight years ago. On the whole, the production is a success and worth seeing.

Some of the more dramatic scenes in the second act would have benefited from a more variegated emotional range. Sinkus needed to work with the actors to find greater nuance, or as we say in the theater, pay greater attention to “beats,” which means making sure the actors are playing objectives and not emotions.

Despite this occasional shortcoming, the actors work very well together. Julia Thudium is perfect as the kindhearted and resilient Dinah. Anderson has come to her aid by writing a character devoid of stereotypes.

Dinah is, thankfully, not a clichéd born-again Christian but a lovely human being, and Thudium is a joy to watch in the role. Vic Browder is not only one of the most talented set designers in Albuquerque, but an excellent actor as well. He is wonderful as Dinah’s husband, the tightly wound moralist Bill. Anderson does not fall prey to stereotyping here either, although it seemed the character might go this way at first.

Browder reveals the depth and pain of the man slowly and with assurance. Tom Schuch and Kristin Hansen are good as older hippie-types facing tough choices. Hansen, especially, captures Jeannette’s denial well, and witnessing her slow acceptance of reality and the fortitude it requires makes for rewarding viewing.

As always at Mother Road productions, the set is a marvel. The reflections on the scrim at the back of the stage suggest a forest marvelously well. Playing through April 10. Go to motherroad.org or call 243-0596 to make reservations.

The Quality of Life
Reaching Through the Dark Fog of Grief
Mother Road Theatre Company
Review by Rob Spiegel, Talkin' Broadway

  Kristín Hansen, Tom Schuch, Vic Browder, Julia Thudium - all photos by Kaleidosoul

Kristín Hansen, Tom Schuch, Vic Browder, Julia Thudium - all photos by Kaleidosoul

Grief is more than an emotion. It can grow into a state of being, a prolonged condition of living that affects all perceptions and interactions with others. The Quality of Life, a 2007 play by Jane Anderson, shows two aging baby boomer couples struggling with the deepest grief—Bill (Vic Browder) and Dinah (Julia Thudium) have lost their daughter. Dinah's cousin Jeannette (Kristin Hansen) is suffering through her husband Neil's (Tom Schuch) late-stage terminal cancer. .

The way each couple copes with grief plays out in dramatic emotional conflict when the two couples get together at Neil and Jeanette's home in the hills of northern California. Their home has been burned down by a wildfire and they are now living in a hut on the scorched ground. Bill and Dinah are visiting from the Midwest to essentially say goodbye to Neil. They are shelled-shocked by the recent loss of their daughter in a brutal murder.

Bill and Dinah are conservative Christians and attempt to lend religious comfort to Neil and Jeanette. But the Californians have rejected traditional religion for an earthy spirituality. (Cut for spoilers. If you haven't seen the show, please don't read full review until you've seen it. We don't want to reveal the whole plot! - Here's the link for the full review...  http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/alb/alb340.html)

Bill is also uncomfortable with Neil's use of marijuana to ease the pain. Dinah, however, is supportive, deciding to imbibe with Neil when Bill is away. This is one of the small fissures we begin to see in Bill and Dinah's marriage as the anger and desperation of grief eats away at their bond.

 Kristín Hansen, Tom Schuch, Vic Browder, Julia Thudium - all photos by Kaleidosoul

Kristín Hansen, Tom Schuch, Vic Browder, Julia Thudium - all photos by Kaleidosoul

That's the set-up as the drama plays out, each couple finding the other's path of grief unfathomable, each couple rejecting the other couple's deepest beliefs outright. And yet, the four characters struggle to find way to reach across the dark chasm.

Director David Sinkus does an excellent job with this emotional minefield. First and foremost is his casting, bringing together some of Albuquerque's top actors. Browder is superb as the edgy and stiff Bill. He also created the fascinating set with Sinkus. The details in the set are exquisite. The always wonderful Hansen delivers Jeannette as a powerful life force. Schuch as Neil and Thudium as Dinah both offer nuanced performances that are sweetly tender without being the least sentimental. Terrific production.

The Quality of Life, written by Jane Anderson and directed by David Sinkus and produced by the Mother Road Theatre Company, runs through April 10, 2016. Performances are on Thursday through Saturday evenings at 7:30 PM, Sunday performance are at 2:00 pm. Performances are held at the Keshet Center of the Arts at 4121 Cutler Ave. NE General admission is $22, seniors (62 and over) are $22, and student are $15. You can buy tickets online at motherroad.org or by calling 505-243-0596.