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ACT's new play 'Quality of Life' thrives on culture clash

(c) Contra Costa Times

October 23, 2008

By Pat Craig

It's a polarized world. In fact, it seems like anyone with a pen, a stick or a grudge eagerly can draw a line in the sand over just about anything.

That's why it was so important for Jane Anderson to create enormously diverse characters in her new play, "The Quality of Life," a dark but frequently funny piece opening Tuesday at American Conservatory Theater.

The characters are cousins, but their relationship curdles into sour confrontation over everything, up to and including life and death. Bill and Dinah (Steven Culp and JoBeth Williams), a fiercely religious couple from the Midwest whose daughter was violently murdered, come West to visit cousins Neil and Jeannette (Dennis Boutsikaris and Laurie Metcalf), who are "spiritual but not religious." They live on the western edge of North America and espouse the views familiar to all of us living in affluent areas of Northern California. They face Neil's certainly terminal cancer, have recently been burned out of their hillside home, and are living in a yurt (Mongolian tent) in the burned-out canyon where their house once stood.

The remaining trees are decorated with prayer flags and artistically dangling artifacts of the fire — a charred lump that was once Neil's Nikon camera, the remaining innards of a computer, remelted and glazed bits of what had been crockery.

Bill and Dinah have brought them a gift bag with things such as jam and a large candle in the shape of praying hands, prompting this dialogue:

Neil: Buddha hands.
Dinah: I think they're supposed to be Christ's but that's all right, however you want to see it.
Neil: No, Christ is good too.
Dinah: I used beeswax because I know you like more natural things.
Jeannette: Love beeswax. Love the smell.
Neil: Nice. Straight from the hive. Beautiful.

Anderson got her basic inspiration from the play from isolated incidents in her own life, but needed to create characters who could flesh out the wisps of ideas.

"That's when I invented the characters, each undergoing equally horrible and tragic instances in their lives," she said during a phone conversation from her home in Los Angeles. "I needed those two (diverse) couples because it's so important now to take that in, especially now when we live in a world of such extremes."

The beginning of the play sets up the cultural and spiritual chasm between the two couples, which reaches a critical mass when Neil announces he plans to take his own life rather than lingering and suffering and becoming a tragic burden to those who love him. Not long afterward, Jeannette tells Dinah she will kill herself at the same time Neil dies.

Dinah and Bill are almost nonplused by the news, which hits them square in the sensibilities and offends them in every way possible.

"Their points of view are so different, it would never, ever cross their consciousness to take their own lives out of grief," Anderson said. "The seed of idea came from two friend down here, a married couple without children. They were dancers and one of most devoted couples I ever met. The husband told me if anything happened to Jackie, he wouldn't want to live."

Anderson was a bit nonplused herself.

"For somebody to say such a thing — I found it touching and upsetting all at the same time," she said. "I look at my own relationships and wonder, would I commit suicide if my beloved were sick and dying?"

Then, she says, the play took off from there.

The part about the fire is based on another real-life incident — her brother, who lives in Northern Marin County, was burned out of his hillside home during the October 1995 four-day Mount Vision fire. And, she conceded, some audiences might connect the play with the Oakland Hills fire, which started Oct. 20, 1991. But the play isn't set in either place.

"I am non-specific in my stage direction — it's a fire on an unspecified Northern California hillside," said Anderson, an Emmy Award-winning ("The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," "Normal") television script writer, who divides her time between Los Angeles and Marin County.

Anderson grew up in Los Altos Hills in the South Bay, and said she still feels a kinship with Northern California. Part of what her play does is examine the all-too-familiar "Northern California mind-set."

"We all go to therapists, so we can't be as religious; we are extremely self-reflective, but at the same time joyous," she said. "Ours is a culture up north of wanting the very best — the very best kind of food from the very best kind of local farms; we want to live deeply and love and be loved deeply; we expect more from our lives. The play examines that and ultimately asks the question, 'What do you require to keep living no matter what?'"

Midwesterners, on the other hand come from a farm background and culture, where everything is much more of a struggle.

"They have a more heroic perspective and work to persevere," she said. "We are horribly disappointed when things go wrong and despair much more easily."

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Theater Preview
WHAT: American Conservatory Theater presents "The Quality of Life," by Jane Anderson
WHEN: Previews through Tuesday, opens at 8 p.m. Wednesdays and plays Tuesdays through Sundays through Nov. 23; call for show times
WHERE: 415 Geary St., S.F.
TICKETS: $14-$82, 415-749-2228 or

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