ON ITS FACE, Quality of Life is another play about middle-class white people confronting their mortality. There seem to be lot of these; sometimes the issues explored onstage reflect the concerns of an aging subscriber base a little too neatly. (It could be worse, I suppose; if Portland stages reflected my concerns, we'd see a lot more plays about how the rent is too damn high.)
But Quality of Life contains a few intriguing dodges and feints. It's about a born-again Midwestern couple who visit their hippie cousin and her husband in California, a classic odd-couple meet-up pitting West Coast libertines against the sensible values of the heartland—or so it seems at first. Death, the great equalizer, is on everyone's mind: The earnest Midwesterners are reeling from the recent death of their daughter; the hippie husband is dying of cancer. But while the two couples have massive, fundamental disagreements about life, the afterlife, and what constitutes a good death, their conflicts are tempered by genuine goodwill and family feeling. In a lesser play, there would be shouting; in this one, there is diplomacy and conflict avoidance, tongues bitten, concessions made.
The show's first act is lighter and more interesting than the second, largely because watching these characters try not to fight is more revealing than watching them actually fight. (Spoiler: They eventually fight.) Refreshingly, though, the show gives equal weight to all points of view. Portland crowds are likely more ideologically aligned with the pot-smoking, assisted suicide-supporting Californians (played by Linda Alper and, in a particularly good turn, Michael Meldson), but steady performances from Susannah Mars and Michael Fisher-Welsh ensure that the conservative/religious viewpoint is presented with intelligence and respect. This thoughtful consideration of opposing viewpoints gives weight and relevance to the show's fundamental questions about what it means to disagree with people you love on matters of life and death.