The impending retirement and shuffling-off this mortal coil of the enormous baby boom generation was bound to inspire a rash of media treatments, and Jane Anderson’s peerlessly acted “The Quality of Life” will stand among the most involving. Anderson never relaxes her grip in “Quality,” incorporating enough contempo issues to fuel a season of “Oprah” episodes.
Her antagonists, two estranged cousins and their husbands, neatly embody a bifurcated America as they cope with past and pending losses. On the right, Dinah (JoBeth Williams) and Bill (Scott Bakula) find their newly acquired fundamentalist Christianity inadequate to deal with their grief over their only daughter’s recent violent death.
They abandon Ohio for Northern California when a forest fire destroys the home of Jeannette (Laurie Metcalf) and Neil (Dennis Boutsikaris), on the left with home-field advantage (Francois-Pierre Couture’s stunning imagining of a makeshift hippie yurt, crazily glittering amid mudslide desolation).
Earliest scenes are beautifully staged and played as four very different souls endeavor to paper over differing world views in small talk, overlapped and awkward, then heartfelt and easy. Gentle character comedy emerges in the straitlaced Midwesterners’ encounters with organic lunch and environmentally friendly privy, the mood turning slowly and believably darker as the shattered parents recognize a kinship with their Redwood country cousins.
One hesitates to say more about the revelations that follow, as the peeling away of politesse is so much a part of Anderson’s dramaturgy. However, so much is laid by each couple on the other that Bill and Dinah’s entire visit smacks of authorial contrivance. Their return after a particularly bitter confrontation feels prompted more by the desire for a second act than by the characters’ will.
Evident, too, is Anderson’s greater sympathy for the erstwhile hippies, who are invariably given the stronger arguments and assigned quirks less often played for snide laughs. One senses a desire to be — dare we say it? — fair and balanced toward the couples, but the company hasn’t reached that goal yet.
Audience involvement won’t be much diminished by Anderson’s full-to-bursting thematic baggage, however, so carefully does this dream cast physicalize and motivate their familiar roles to transcend stereotype. Williams’ knitting fingers and self-deprecating pleasantries barely mask a porcelain doll on the edge of falling off the shelf. An agonized Bakula is just one big clenched fist, in contrast with Metcalf’s wired-up restlessness suggesting that even a momentary hiatus might cause a breakdown.
And Boutsikaris, stiff with pain of a different kind, proves to be play’s focal point and moral center. The clearest voice of patient reason, Neil is given Anderson’s best sustained writing, an absorbing 11th-hour anthropology lecture whose meaning the aud is permitted to work out for itself.
Transitions yield too many false endings, and awkward blackouts make the play one of those “is it over yet?” evenings. But Jason H. Thompson’s poetically conceived lighting never fails to reinforce Anderson’s principal theme: the courage simply to hang in there, with dignity, as long as one reasonably can.