Scott Bakula, Laurie Metcalf, and Dennis Boutsikaris
in The Quality of Life
(© Michael Lamont)
Scott Bakula, Laurie Metcalf, and Dennis Boutsikaris
in The Quality of Life
(© Michael Lamont)
Perhaps one of the most profound questions we face in life is how to deal with death. It doesn't seem to matter all that much whether the dilemma concerns our own shuffling off of this mortal coil, or whether someone we love faces a slow disintegration from disease or a fast, traumatic and unexpected demise. It is both the end itself, and the means by which we face it, that matter.

Playwright Jane Anderson explores a myriad of ethical, religious, and moral beliefs, as well as (some would say) personal rights issues concerning life and death in her remarkable and completely engrossing new play, The Quality of Life, which is now receiving its world premiere at the newly-opened Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre at the Geffen Theatre.

The play, which was commissioned by the Geffen, is also directed by Anderson, and played by an all-star cast that includes Scott Bakula and JoBeth Williams as Bill and Dinah, who are sill grieving the recent loss of their brutally murdered, college-aged daughter, Cindy; Laurie Metcalf as Jeanette, Dinah's wildly free-spirited, hippieish cousin; and Dennis Boutsikaris as Neil, Jeanette's cherished husband of 23 years and a sociocultural anthropologist, who is dying of cancer.

In the aftermath of death, the deceased often becomes the entire focus of the lives of the survivors closest to them. This is certainly true of Bill and Dinah, whose living room is sparsely furnished and dominated by a portrait of Cindy. Although both have found comfort and solace in the bosom of a local church, it is Bill -- the one who had to identify the mutilated remains of his only child -- who becomes blindly devotional and completely intolerant of any point of view different from his own hard line perspective. Dinah, on the other hand, is more open-minded. While still devastated, she is grateful that her child is "safe in the arms of her Lord, Jesus," and can simultaneously make room for the possibility that others, like Jeanette and Neil, may have a different attitude about how to handle the inevitable and what happens afterward.

The majority of the play takes place on the scorched hillside of what was once Jeanette and Neil's home (the evocative scenic design is by Francois-Pierre Couture; the lovely lighting is by Jason H. Thompson). Having lost everything in a disastrous fire, the couple are now living off the blackened land in a yertz (a tall, circular tent), using a solar panel for electricity, decorating with colorful hanging lanterns and wind chimes made of the melted remains of their possessions, and trying to keep a lemons-into-lemonade outlook about it all.

Neil has little time left, and so has chosen to leave life on his own terms. When Dinah and Bill learn of his plans, and Jeanette's intimate involvement in it, a hellish fight about God and free will and consequences sends everybody spiraling out of control.

It is the struggle to understand -- and to deal with -- the unfathomable that is the heart of Anderson's play. It's not that we've never dealt with death before, or heard the various arguments surrounding how to deal with it, but rarely have the frustrations, the anger, the fears, the horrible "how-could-you-do-this?" and "how-can-I-ever-live-with-you?" questions ever been so articulately and passionately expressed.

Anderson is also blessed with an amazing, adventurous cast, willing to slide off slippery emotional slopes and round dangerous curves to get to the truth. And they do, without pretense, and at full throttle. Together they are a stunning ensemble, and everyone has moments to brilliantly shine. But it is Metcalf, in particular whose Jeanette is so vibrant and in-the-moment that she compels you to never look away from her or from the death-defying issues at hand. It can be a scary, heartbreaking place to stay, but well worth the journey.