When every interaction we have is viewed through the lens of politics, even discussing a smoothie or a sedimentary rock can get polarized and exhausting. Theater is no different; every show that has come across Santa Fe’s stages so far this year could be looked at in an us- versus-them, black-versus-white context. The Quality of Life, however, does throw into sharp contrast one stark, inevitable truth: We’re all going to die.
Presented by the New Mexico Actors Lab and co-directed by Robert Benedetti and Nicholas Ballas, playwright Jane Anderson's play details the interactions between two couples: Dinah and Bill, a staunch Christian couple from Ohio still reeling from the murder of their only daughter, and their Californian cousins Jeannette and Neil, aging hippies who live in a yurt in the woods and smoke plenty of weed.
Oh, and Neil is dying. It's cancer, and it's bad.
To say that the play is just about the end of life, though, lessens its accessibility. "It's more about how the living deal with death than about death itself," Benedetti says. The interactions and evolution of the characters outside the topic of Neil's imminent death are potent and vital, especially considering the current political climate and the general leaning in Santa Fe. Initially, it feels very red-state-blue-state (but, as in all good writing, the lines quickly get blurred). While many folks in our town would likely identify more with Jeanette and Neil, played by Barbara Hatch and Ballas, Benedetti cautions the viewer not to view Dinah and Bill's Bible-thumping ways as backward.
"Just in the way that Shylock has never been the same since the Holocaust," he says, referencing the grotesque Shakespearian caricature of a Jewish stereotype, "characters who represent particular points of view are enormously influenced by the environment in which the play is performed." With the rise of the Westboro Baptist Church and politicians from the Christian right, then, it is important that we view these characters as humans rather than as archetypes.
The God-fearing cousins would likely be the heroes of this show in West Texas or East Tennessee, but in Santa Fe, the characters take a little more caressing. Dinah, here portrayed by Jody Durham, is the more sympathetic of the two, more flexible in her beliefs and more willing to understand her left-leaning cousins. Benedetti says he chose Patrick Briggs to play the hardliner conservative Bill because "he's the kind of person you enjoy being around, and that helps to take some of the sting out of Bill."
While the theme of religious conflict and what Benedetti calls "a juicy argument about medical marijuana" will be welcome in a social and political climate like Santa Fe's, putting on a show partly about end-of-life issues could be a risky proposition here. Santa Fe has, after all, become a retirement hotspot. Benedetti points out that 70 percent of New Mexico Actors Lab tickets sold last year were at a senior discount. Will those folks necessarily want to be confronted by a play that looks death in the eye?
"Some people are extremely excited and supportive, and other people just don't want to go near it," Benedetti says of his perception of the Santa Fe audience. "And there's not much of a gray area."
It seemed appropriate for NMAL to pair up with Coming Home Connection, a nonprofit that places volunteer companions with anyone who needs in-home care—including those with terminal illness.
Glenys Carl, who founded CHC, was first drawn to the concept of companionship by brutal necessity. After her adult son suffered a traumatic brain injury, she cared for him for three years. When he eventually died from his injuries, Carl only grew more resolute in her mission to provide help to those most in need—low-income, uninsured, and those without families. After working with ALS, Parkinson's and AIDS patients, she founded CHC in 2007. The organization trains volunteers to provide round-the-clock care to sick or disabled Santa Feans. In 2015, more than 300 volunteers helped almost 150 families.
There is an erroneous perception that those who retire to Santa Fe have pots of money and big adobe mansions to live out their days, but Carl points out that that just isn't the case. Couples may lose their homes to medical bills, and social security doesn't always cover what's needed. "When they become ill, they don't have enough money, and there's nowhere for them to go," she says—so that's where CHC volunteers step in.
CHC operates on a skeletal budget, and Carl hopes to soon purchase a modest home in town to provide live-in care for a few patients at a time. Accordingly, Wednesday June 21 features a special benefit performance for the nonprofit. The first two Sunday performances (June 18 and 25) include a talk-back session with Carl after the show about questions and themes raised in the play.
Caring for someone with terminal illness or in hospice isn't just walking on eggshells and waiting solemnly for the inevitable. It can be very much about life, and celebrating the living someone's already done. There's always more left to say and do.
The Quality of Life
7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays June 15-July 1;
2 pm Sundays June 18-July 2. $15-$20.
Benefit performance: 7:30 pm Wednesday June 21. $25.
Pay-what-you-wish performance: 7:30 pm Wednesday June 28.
3205 Calle Marie,