Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Quality of Life


A little context ... I took Thursday and Friday off to clean house in preparation for our little cocktail party in honor of Halloween. The house is as clean as it ever was ... which given the tschotschke density is quite a feat ... and the dozen folks who enjoyed our "fine ales and fancy shooters" were a fine crew. One of their number, my regular reader KW, challenged my notion that canceling Halloween in the Castro was homophobic; our exchange was interrupted by the revelry, but I promise her, and you, a sober explanation of what I mean by that assertion in the near future. And so, it is the Sunday evening of a four-day weekend, with great challenges awaiting me tomorrow. I made myself an early martini ... why? Because into every reverie comes something like ACT's production of Jane Anderson's The Quality of Life.

I quote the Chronicle review to set this up:

Set in the Berkeley hills after a major fire, "Quality" introduces Jeannette, an earthy, high-spirited woman played by Laurie Metcalf. Jeannette's husband, Neil (Dennis Boutsikaris), is dying of cancer. When her cousin Dinah from Ohio (JoBeth Williams) comes for a visit with her husband, Bill (Steven Culp), the two couples - one solidly on the left, the other resolute in their conservative Christian beliefs - are made to confront their huge dissimilarities.

It seems like the play shouldn't work notwithstanding the sterling performances especially by the two women, Laurie Metcalfe (the one person who was actually acting instead of mooning in TV's Roseanne), and JoBeth Williams of Poltergeist fame ... I wouldn't know about that given my fear of scary films. It seems like the play should be a boring recitation of the much ballyhooed "culture war" that fuels the righteous indignation of the right. And there were moments like that. But in the middle of this clash between a dying hippie alongside his life partner living in a yurt after a fire ruined them and a Midwestern couple whose daughter had been brutally murdered, in the middle of a fight over whether suicide is ever right, a little humanity bursts through.

Of course, as someone who lived through the AIDS deaths of the 80s and 90s ... as someone who ushered six best friends to untimely graves, and discussed suicide and the quality of life in pitiless and endless detail with every one of them ... well, it hit home. Yes, it hit home.

Spoiler alert ... don't read this paragraph is you plan to see the play ... the hippie wife, played superbly by Laurie Metcalf, announces that she has decided to accompany her life partner in this last journey. That's where the play turns ... and my theater companion Roy later remarked that he wondered how one would direct a play when the denouement closes the first act! And it turns out that the diehard Christian male is right about life, and the drinks-too-much hippie philosopher is wrong. They all end up estranged, but each side seems to learn something in the exchange. Notwithstanding the revelation of stasis that is the ending of this piece, it leaves its audiences in pieces ... it left me wondering about the meaning of life.

When my friend Jack died, his smugly affluent exurban family descended upon us as if from nowhere, and performed admirably. The parents asked me to chaperon the lover who was, how to put it, a wild-card, prone to embarrassing dramatics. We agreed on that. After Jack died, they executed his last will and testament to the last dotted i and crossed t. They did as he asked, and as his brother and I embraced for what would obviously be the last time, he said, "Not bad for a born again Christian." I agreed and hugged him one last time.

Not so with the exurban hardware store owners who parented my friend Tom. They undid everything he asked for as soon as his dementia was too far gone, and to this day, according to an old friend of his, they have not announced his death to any family friends in Michigan. They too are Christians.

But the death that most returns to me in thinking about this play is the death of my mentor and great friend Kurt. He is pictured above in one of his many alter egos. He viewed death as a friend; he said that AIDS had transformed him and made him a better person. We talked, endlessly and with brutal frankness about death ... for three years. But when it came, it took him by surprise, and despite all the preparation, he had missed a key problem. When it came, he could not swallow, and so the paper bag in the refrigerator was useless. He suffered unspeakable agonies for five days ... we never thought he would not be able to swallow.

I was with Kurt in his final delirium ... he imagined that there were giraffes in the room and he wanted assurance that the police were not involved. The staff of the VA where he died were sweet and helpful. But he did not die on the terms he had set for himself. And that is an unspeakable tragedy.

So to the play ... in the end, I had no sympathy for the Laurie Metcalfe character. I won't say what happened in case you see the play, but what happened is irrelevant in a larger sense. Those of use who survive ... those of us who watch early demise and thereby earn the duty to "bear witness" to it ... have a duty to live. Grieving is inevitable, irreducible, a duty and a torment. But surviving charges you with the responsibility to sequester the grief and move on so as to do what the lost cannot do but would do.

The AIDS deaths ripped me apart, and introduced a sorrow into me that never quite fully leaves or dissolves away. But I do not approve of even the soup├žon of self-pity that I allow myself. This part of me actually disgusts me a little. I wish I could mount a great charger and impress my friends who are now only dust. There is no reason why I shouldn't

So I thank Jane Anderson for making think about death again. And, more to the point, life.

Wow ... this thing did not go where I intended it to ... but there it is.

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