Sometimes in the theater, you're hit with a sudden awareness of what lies ahead. Something like that happened to me Sunday at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue, about halfway through the stirring Jane Anderson drama "The Quality of Life," which is enjoying an intimate but staging under the direction of Lia Mortensen. Here's my little revelation: We're all about to see a lot more plays about baby boomers dying.
I'm not speaking of a demographic losing its influence. I mean the topic of literally shuffling off the mortal coil — which is the main topic of Anderson's intriguing and resonant play, which pits a couple of crunchy-granola Northern California types against their boomer doppelganger relatives, visiting the fire-singed California hills from suburban Cleveland — that all-purpose symbol (for California-based playwrights, anyway) of Midwestern squareness.
It's a logical development, of course. Most great plays are about death and how we face our mortality. Boomers have put their stamp on American culture all their lives — and they long have been writing about their pain in losing their parents, members of the greatest generation. They're already in the midst of reinventing Florida retirement communities. And given their love of self-actualization, who's to say they plan to die like everyone else?
Certainly, the central couple in Anderson's play have made distinctive plans. Neil (Ron Wells) is in the end stages of a losing battle with cancer, and he has decided to take control over his own exit. His beloved Jeannette (the lively Liz Zweifler) does not want to play the role of the traditional grieving partner, so she has made some plans too. Both are approaching their mutual change with a calm that looks positively creepy to Jeannette's Christian cousin Dinah (Jennifer Joan Taylor, who plays her character with great heart) and her straight-arrow husband Bill (Stephen Spencer).
Anderson is, with a few easy laughs, probing the differences between Midwestern and coastal values. When that shows up, I'm always on the lookout for biased contests — let's just say there aren't many dramatic celebrations of Midwestern values on American stage. But although you sense she won't be moving to Cleveland any time soon, Anderson doesn't fall into that usual trap. Anderson's Midwesterners aren't just showing up to disapprove of the hippy lifestyle; they're trying to recover from something that permits no recovery whatsoever, the death of their abducted child.
"The Quality of Life" premiered in 2007 at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, and has since played a lot of big regional theaters. In Chicago, the play has landed in the tiny but rising Den Theatre, where Sunday there were a lot of moist eyes in the little house.
Dramaturgically, the Midwestern couple's loss evens the stakes very shrewdly, although it certainly puts a lot of weighty issues on the back of the play, all of which takes place outside the tented structure where Neil and Jeannette are living, following a scorching wildfire on their property. The piece is conventionally structured, certainly, and you predict the notes of eventual rapprochement long before they arrive, but this nonetheless remains a notably compassionate piece of writing that suggests a great writerly belief that Americans of very different value systems can find common ground if they break bread together and listen to what worries the other. That's a useful thing to ponder on a contentious Election Day.
Still, the emotion at the Den is also the result of a very potent and deeply alive performance from Wells, who, all at once, makes you believe that his character is in great pain, that he has genuinely come to terms with his situation, and that he is simultaneously wracked with doubt. It's a very human, complex piece of acting, and it anchors Mortensen's warm, honest and very unpretentious production, staged on a set from Henry Behel that far exceeds what you normally expect in theaters of this size. Spencer, actually, has the toughest job of all, playing the most wound-tight of these characters. But he shows us a man who does not come easy to any kind of change, but who changes a little, nonetheless.
I found a couple of moments overplayed for the size of the space. Still, "The Quality of Life" (the title sums up the play's central debate) deserves to find an audience. In a second-floor walk-up, you'll find honest Chicago acting, deep thoughts, honest writing about societal change and compassion for the messiness of all our value systems, let alone the way we want to face our end.
When: Through Dec. 1
Where: Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $25 at brownpapertickets.com