Entering the large open space of the Den Theatre lobby, my husband and I were impressed with the open space, high ceiling, gorgeous woods and the great selection at the bar. The Chicago premiere of The Quality of Life by Jane Anderson, directed by Lia D. Mortensen, which first premiered at the Geffen Theatre in Los Angeles, was the reason for our visit. Opening its first full season in its new and expanded home it is playing until December 1, 2012 There was a good feeling in the open space surrounded by high ceilings and beautiful wood posts and panels, people enjoying wine and conversation mingling pleasantly before going to one of three concurrent productions. There are five performance spaces and a dance studio available. Being a bit older and unfamiliar with the neighborhood, we found the entrance a little tricky because the entry appeared to need a combination for entry. Fortunately a young woman walked up and just opened the door.
Founder and Artistic Director Ryan Martin saw a diamond in the rough when he first walked onto the bare and empty wood-floored 2nd story of 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. With the potential for innovative live performance in a neighborhood that has long been known for its creative heartbeat, this formerly empty space is now fully equipped with a bar and café, and boasts five unique, intimate theatre spaces on two floors, and enveloped by a never-ending field of lounge space for audiences and like-minded culture hounds to drink, talk, read, watch, think, listen and live. As the bar tender noted, "We take acting seriously".
When it was time for the performance to begin we were directed to an intimate space in an area to the rear of the entrance. The clever but simple set was perfect. It did not interfere with the action the actors brought to the stage and it offered a backdrop from which the words of the play revealed different parts of the country, California and Ohio.
The play seems to ask how one keeps going when confronting loss, the kind of question that arises when each of us wants to know, “Why me?” “Why do bad things happen to good people?” but even more, how does one cope? Denial? Religion? Keeping busy?
Sensitively, brilliantly and beautifully Jane Anderson brings us into the lives of two couples. The women are cousins. Dinah (Jennifer Taylor) and Bill (Stephen Spencer), devout church going conservatives from Ohio decide to visit their left-wing cousins Jeannette (Liz Zweifler) and Neil (Ron Wells). They have just lost their home in the Berkeley Hills to a wildfire but are seemingly living happily in a Tibetan yurt on their burn site and are calmly facing Neil’s terminal cancer.
When the couples first meet the clash between Midwest and West Coast culture results in hysterically funny moments. But once the defensive layers are pealed off, the underlying anger, fear and isolation come to the surface. This play dealt sensitively and in depth with the issues in life that each of us struggles with as we get through each day. The acting was superb. One could almost smell the pines on the hillside as the actors described the scene.
The production team for The Quality of Life includes: Henry Behel (Scenic Designer), Zachary Gipson (Associate Scenic Designer), Andrew Vanderbye (Lighting Designer), Melissa Schlesinger (Sound Designer), Jon Buranosky (Props Designer), Ginger Leopoldo (Production Manager), Shelley Crosby (Assistant Director) and Jennifer Bukovsky (Stage Manager).
This is a great setting and a wonderful production. See what the Den Theatre has to offer and you are sure to return for future productions.
Photos: Joe Mazza
The Den Theatre
1333 N Milwaukee, 2nd Floor