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The talk of the theatrical town this week? Helen Mirren’s Phèdre, of course—a performance at once epic and human, technically adept and emotionally alive, wildly hyped and worthy of it. And all but impossible to experience, if you haven’t already: The 10-day run of the National Theatre’s production ends Sunday at Harman Hall, where tickets have been sold out since shortly after the Earth cooled.
So while Mirren and her colleagues have certainly earned most of the ink that’s been spilled on their behalf, I thought I’d spend a few paragraphs on an indelible performance by an actress whose work you might actually stand a chance of seeing. Permit me to introduce—or to reintroduce, if you were lucky enough to see her in Arena Stage’s The Rainmaker a few years back—the splendidly charismatic Johanna Day. She’s just one of four terrific actors doing honorable battle with Jane Anderson’s talky, thinky tragedy The Quality of Life at Arena’s temporary Crystal City home—and if the play’s ultimately as much a philosophical inquiry as a robust exercise in onstage storytelling, Day proves she’s every inch a creature of the theater: She’s warm and immediate and available and in the room every minute, and, working opposite the equally winning Stephen Schnetzer, she’s downright irresistible.
They’re a crunchy-granola California couple, a poet (her) and an anthropologist (him) living in what used to be their house: It’s just been reduced to its foundations by one of those canyon-channeled wildfires, which might have been a walloping tragedy except that Schnetzer’s Neil is in the last stages of cancer. Given this bigger-picture drama, they’ve decided to roll with the natural world’s punches and live out his final days in a yurt pitched on the charred property, not far from their composting toilet and the blackened chimneystack that they’ve turned into an outdoor kitchen. Are they eccentric? Well, yes, but smart and funny and still madly in love with each other after almost 30 years. They’re awfully hard not to like, even when you learn, just before intermission, how they intend to deal with Neil’s exit from this vale of tears.
That’s more than many audiences will be able to say for Dinah and Bill, the foursquare Ohio couple who turn up for a weekend visit. Nervously talky Dinah (Annette O’Toole) is cousin to Day’s Jeannette, though they’ve been out of touch; stiff, stolid Bill (Kevin O’Rourke) is Dinah’s husband, and like her he’s still struggling to cope with the loss of their daughter, who (it’s revealed, gradually and with a touch of the prurient) has been abducted and brutally murdered. Unlike their agnostic Left Coast relatives, the two have swerved hard, post-trauma, away from each other and toward religion—and theirs is the stern, judgmental kind, so it’s hard to escape the feeling that Anderson thinks of them as the twosome with the most to learn.
Learn they do—all of them, to be fair to the playwright. She’s wrestling with big notions about faith and grief, self-determination and selfishness, responsibility and religiosity and more, and eventually Bill and Dinah’s better angels do emerge. (As do Jeannette and Neil’s elitist impulses, not to mention a certain tendency toward self-dramatization.) It’s an empathetic play, ultimately, and a humane one.
But it’s also a somewhat schematic one, and the tale’s too-tidy dualities and earnest, predictable denouement—plus a probably inescapable whiff of authorial condescension toward those Midwesterners (never mind valiant, sensitive performances from O’Toole and O’Rourke)—make the experience feel less resonant the morning after than it is as you watch.
Not to undersell that as-you-watch oomph: The acting is fine enough, and Lisa Peterson’s direction easygoing enough, and Neil Patel’s gorgeous scorched forest of a setting moody enough, that it’s plenty easy to get swept up in the pangs of Anderson’s characters. But even with Day’s earthily sensual, emotionally transparent, handsomely damaged Jeannette to remember, Life loses a measure of its quality in the sober light of day.