No hallucination: it’s a high ‘Life’

Artists Rep's exquisite, sweet and measured 'The Quality of Life' is another highlight in a sterling Portland season

When Jeannette offers a hit of pot, her straitlaced cousin Dinah doesn’t know what to expect. “Will I hallucinate?,” she asks innocently.

“It’s a gentle, inquisitive experience,” Neil, Jeannette’s husband, reassures her. The same can be said for The Quality of Life, a thoughtful, funny play by Jane Anderson that approaches questions both contemporary and timeless, and, in a perfectly balanced production at Artists Rep, counts as yet another high point in a Portland theater season that’s already had more than its usual share.

Mars, Mendelson, Alper: laughing against the pain. Photo: Owen Carey

Mars, Mendelson, Alper: laughing against the pain. Photo: Owen Carey

Gentle and inquisitive also are good words to describe Neil and Jeannette, a long-married and deeply loving couple enjoying what you might call a provisional lifestyle in Northern California. A canyon fire has claimed their house, with Neil’s years of academic research inside, and they’re residing in a yurt, surrounded by their own magic forest of debris – charred remnants of their avocado and fig trees, unrecognizably warped bits of the few possessions they could find, now strewn about as accidental art objects.

Perhaps their cheerful equanimity is the result of resignation, or maybe of the pot – which in any case they use for more than just taking the edge off: It’s the last medicine doing Neil any good, as he faces down terminal cancer.

“I’m growing prize-winning tumors here; I’m going to enter them in the state fair,” he jokes, after extolling the “heirloom pot” he inhales from a vaporizer.

The plight of Neil and Jeannette is laid out at the start, but it’s not them we meet first. The play opens with a brief scene in Ohio, where Dinah and her husband Bill decide to visit, even though they’re trying to cope with troubles of their own, the grim nature of which we learn only in dribbles.

Both couples are trying to negotiate grief in their own ways, so we know that the playwright is conducting a sort of qualitative comparison. And as soon as they get together, distinctions and divisions begin to show. Neil and Jeannette are free-spirited free-thinkers, conspicuously at ease with their circumstances and with each other. Dinah is agreeable and eager to please, Bill is dull and practical, and there’s a vaguely uneasy distance between them. Bill so objects to his hosts’ marijuana use that he retreats to his car to listen to a baseball game. And when religion enters the conversation – perhaps you can guess which couple are the churchgoers – the sides are clearly drawn.

From time to time, Anderson’s script starts to seem like another point-scoring game between the two sides of our current cultural divide: Midwest/Left Coast, red/blue, conservative/liberal, dour Xtian/happy heathen. In addition to medical marijuana, the issue menu includes the “death with dignity” movement, the power and perils of faith, the balancing of tolerance with moral and social principles, and so on.

With such an agenda, the danger of didacticism lurks, like the coyotes that prey on wayward pets near what used to be Neil and Jeannette’s house. But Anderson eventually complicates and subverts our easy expectations for how these characters think and behave. She even gives Bill, the play’s resident prig, the best line: “Don’t insult my good intentions just because I acted like an ass.”

Yet all along these characters have felt like real people, very much like people we all know. And credit for that goes to the emotionally scrupulous direction by Allen Nause and to a well-matched cast that digs hard and deep for truthfulness while making it look easy.

Mars, Fisher-Welsh: couple in crisis. Photo: Owen Carey

Mars, Fisher-Welsh: couple in crisis. Photo: Owen Carey

Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Linda Alper, now a Portlander and Artists Rep regular, fairly sparkles as Jeannette, by turns sassy, empathetic, caustic, tender, vulnerable and wise. Michael Mendelson delivers one of the finest performances of his long and acclaimed tenure in town, quietly and subtly showing us Neil’s weariness and pain, his alacrity and humor, and hints of his submerged rage and fear. Together they make an utterly believable couple, comfortable and natural in their interactions whether laughing or squabbling.

Susannah Mars lets us see the way Dinah is constricted by convention yet yearns to live authentically by her own lights. And from behind the almost buffoonish rectitude of Bill, Michael Fisher-Welsh presents a warm, deeply sympathetic character, the alternating surges of consternation and concern calibrated just so.

Much of what the play mulls comes under the umbrella of what these days we call quality of life issues. But there’s a reason the title has that definite article. The quality of life, after all, is, well, life.

And that’s what this exquisite production offers us in something that feels very close to the real thing.

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