Poignant performances combine with engrossing story to create a powerful, compassionate piece

Lakewood’s Benchmark Theatre has another hit on its hands with its current production, “The Quality of Life,” and it serves as a reminder of just how good theater can be when every element clicks. Director Warren Sherrill has done an outstanding job of not only bringing together the perfect cast, but also of assembling a crew that has every detail covered.

There are still tickets available as of this writing and you need to get one — or preferably more than one — because this is a production that you’ll want to ruminate over and dissect with others after the (figurative) curtains close.

In fact, at the introduction of the play, Executive Artistic Director Rachel Rogers explains that there is a board in the theater’s lobby where handwritten notecards are posted to share the theater experience and further explore the thought-provoking content of “The Quality of Life.”

The small, intimate setting of the Benchmark places you in the middle of the scene as two distant cousins and their husbands who have recently gone through different, yet devastating losses, reconnect. As they struggle to find common ground and find meaning beyond death, their differences threaten to overwhelm the fragile reunion.


Mark Collins and Emily Paton Davies.
Photo: McLeod9 Creative

Weighty topics

With just four actors to carry the conversation, award-winning playwright Jane Anderson has explored a myriad of deep, weighty topics in just two acts. And it can be a bit overwhelming. The play delves into its namesake — the quality of our lives — by touching upon such topics as surviving post-trauma, religious dogma, the use of legal (and in some states illegal) substances, interpersonal dynamics and familial bonds. But to Anderson’s credit, the dialog is interlaced throughout with humor and honesty, which gives it some well-timed and needed levity.

First produced for the stage in 2007, “The Quality of Life” has flown under the radar for the most part. But it is a poignant play, and Anderson’s empathy for the characters and recognition that what we have in common outweighs our differences in the end.

Finding common ground

The play primarily takes place on the remains of Neil and Jeannette’s home in the hills of Northern California. What was once a beautiful oasis of fruit trees and green grass is now a burnt hulk with charred scavenged souvenirs of fused glass and chunks of blackened metal hanging from a skeletal tree. Despite the gloomy surroundings, the freewheeling, granola-crunching couple stubbornly refuse to dwell on what they’ve lost and instead focus on living day-to-day in a yurt with no running water while Neil’s days rapidly dwindle due to terminal cancer.

Amongst this background, Jeannette’s cousin, Dinah, and her husband, Bill, come visiting from Ohio. The conservative Midwestern church-going couple are trying to deal with the sudden loss of their daughter, and the clash between the two couple’s lifestyles and beliefs are evident from the first awkward moments.

As the conversation flows, along with cups of red wine and occasional hits of pot for Jeannette and Neil, it is revealed that Neil has decided to end his life on his own terms instead of waiting for the disease to take its course. And Jeannette has her own plans on how to handle his impending death.

These choices don’t sit well with the Midwesterners and tempers flare and hurtful words between all four are left ringing in the air as the couple departs for their hotel. Despite the anger and harsh words, the encounter opens the door for honest conversation and painful truths between the two couples.

Some of the most revealing moments come when a dejected Bill returns to the yurt where he encounters a deflated Jeannette and the two unlikely allies further unburden themselves to each other. Ultimately, both come to a better understanding of the other and themselves.

What makes the play so powerful is the realistic dialog that flows easily between the two couples as they quickly move from one controversial topic to another – whether it’s over Neil’s use of marijuana to ease his pain, or Dinah’s struggle with believing in a god who would allow horrible things to happen to innocent believers.

One could argue that the plot is predictable, but the sharp writing and poignant acting keeps the audience engaged and focused.

Haley Johnson, Marc Stith and Emily Paton Davies.
Photo: McLeod9 Creative

Outstanding performances

All four actors are perfectly cast for their roles. Each one deftly conveys a recognizable type without descending into caricature. Together they are an impressive ensemble, and each one has their moment to shine.

Emily Paton Davies positively radiates as free-spirit, wine-drinking, zen-searching Jeanette. She is so vibrant and in-the-moment that it can be difficult not to focus on her and ignore the surrounding conversation. Davies not only captures the frenetic energy of Jeanette, but also provides tantalizing glimpses of her frantic efforts to prevent her fragile world from unraveling. After having seen her in several recent performances, I have to say that this one brought out the best in her.

Mark Collins also brought a spot-on performance as Neil. His ability to look frail and in pain while simultaneously emanating the strength of his beliefs keeps him from getting lost in the wake of the other dominant characters. Collins’ skillful shift between strength and weakness deftly demonstrates his skill as an actor and keeps his character believable.

Haley Johnson, who is also the Producing Artistic Director at Benchmark, was more than up to the challenge of keeping Dinah’s waves of emotions in check. It would have been easy to let the character becomes lost in the hand-wringing and self-pity, but Johnson’s careful portrayal kept it in line. Which made it all the more powerful when she did let go and passionately vented her pent-up frustrations while out of her husband’s hearing.

Last, but certainly not least, was the remarkable performance by Marc Stith as the tightly-wound Bill. He, arguably, had the toughest job of all playing the uptight, righteous Midwestern husband and father. But Stith adeptly softens his blustery, hard-edged character by the end and becomes almost sympathetic. His last scene with Jeannette, where he simply explains that he deals with his grief by “putting one foot in front of the other” is one of the most powerful in the play.