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Vision Fire inspires Marin playwright to find common ground

(c) Marin Independent Journal

October 22, 2008

By Paul Liberatore

If we recognize parts of ourselves in the characters in "The Quality of Life," opening Friday at the American Conservatory Theater, it's because playwright Jane Anderson draws heavily from the liberal sensibilities of Marin County, particularly the progressive attitudes of West Marin.

You can be certain she knows the territory she's writing about. The 54-year-old playwright, who's also directing her play in its Northern California premiere, grew up in the Bay Area and lives part of the year in Marin.

An award-winning television, film and theater writer and director best known for the movie "The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio," Anderson splits her time between Los Angeles and the 75-acre spread overlooking Lake Nicasio she shares with her spouse and their 14-year-old son.

"When we go into town, the town we go into is Point Reyes Station," she said during a break in rehearsals at ACT's Geary Street theater. "I'm very much at ease with the culture of Marin. It's a playful, caring culture. Women can let their hair go gray with impunity. L.A. is very different. Appearances, power, being in the in club, that's the culture down there."

The setting of "The Quality of Life" was inspired by one of Marin's worst disasters: the devastating Vision Fire that destroyed some 45 houses in 1995 on the Inverness Ridge, including the rustic home Anderson's brother built by hand, using wood he milled from the Bishop pines on his property.

"It was an amazing structure, which made it all the more heartbreaking when it burned down," she said. "After the place burned it was so tragic and so complete that it left him devastated for many years." (He has since rebuilt.)

In the play, a progressive, left-leaning couple, Neil and Jeannette (played by Dennis Boutsikaris and Laurie Metcalf), have lost their Northern California home in a fire and are living off the grid in a yurt they've erected on their blackened hillside.

That's the least of their hard luck. Neil is also dying of cancer, and has chosen, with his wife's consent, to die on his own terms and in his own time.

"Those characters were inspired by a couple I know in L.A.," Anderson explained. "They're dancers, and deeply devoted to each other. When she got breast cancer, he told her he was prepared to go with her. She recovered, but I was so blown away by that level of devotion I knew I had to write a play about it."

In the real world, the California couple's belief in the right to end your life when faced with a fatal disease has become an issue of growing concern among aging baby boomers.

In the play, their decision is met with outrage by Jeanette's visiting cousin, Dinah (JoBeth William) and her husband, Bill (Steven Culp), fundamentalist Christians from the Midwest whose college-age daughter has been brutally murdered.

They have found solace in their religious beliefs, but their intolerance of any point of view on the sanctity of life other than their own becomes a hugely emotional wedge between the two couples - a microcosm of the national culture war between red states and blue states.

"I admire the Midwest sensibility," Anderson said. "It's based on the premise that no matter what has happened to you, you pick up and start over again.

"Those of us on the coast don't quite have that ability. When tragedy hits us, we feel it so much that we go to Sprit Rock, we go to shrinks. What we left-wingers say is, 'Just leave us alone. Let us live our lives the way we want to live them.' I call the play 'The Quality of Life' because some of us coastal folks require a very high quality of life in order to go on. People like my Midwestern couple will go on no matter what. That's the great discussion I have in the play."

"The Quality of Life" had its premiere last year at the Geffen Playhouse and was nominated for four Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards and six Los Angeles Ovation Awards. The same cast, hailed by as "a stunning ensemble," appears in the San Francisco run.

A review in said of Anderson:

"As a writer, she explores the issues of euthanasia and spiritual beliefs and, as a director, she grounds them in an everyday world of believable characters, contrasting who they are with who they become."

Despite the bleak subject matter, she insists she treats it with humor.

"I hate to go to the theater and get depressed," she said with a laugh. "When people ask what it's about I don't even want to tell them. But it's funny. Oh, it's funny. That's the only way to handle this."

In a larger sense, she sees "The Quality of Life" as a reflection of what's going on in the country at this critical moment in our history.

"I think this is a particularly exciting time to mount the play because of the election," she explains. "The play speaks to where we are at this point in our country. Ultimately, these two couples inform each other, and I think both sides of the country can inform each other if we show each other respect. Because if we don't, our country will crumble. We've got to find common ground. That's why I wrote the play."

- What: Jane Anderson's "The Quality of Life"
- When: Oct. 29 to Nov. 23, previews Oct. 24 to 28
- Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco
- Tickets: $14 to $82
- Information: 749-2228 or

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