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Jane Anderson's 'Quality of Life' at ACT

(c) San Francisco Chronicle

October 28, 2008



By Edward Guthmann

When Jane Anderson hears the arguments behind Proposition 8, the ballot measure that would eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry in California, she feels waves of anger. "My more primal self wants to go up to those people and wring their necks for messing with my rights," she says.

But in the next breath, Anderson, a playwright and film director, corrects herself. "I have to keep reminding myself of my own philosophy, which is to try to have some compassion for their side - even though they're trying to really mess up my life."

Anderson, 54, lives in Los Angeles with her partner of 26 years, Tess Ayers, and their adopted 14-year-old son, Raphael. Her new play, "The Quality of Life," which she also directs, runs through Nov. 23 at the American Conservatory Theater.

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.

Anderson sees it as an exercise in the kind of tolerance that she tries to embrace during the rancorous cultural war over same-sex marriages.

"I believe the coastal personality and the Midwest personality are so different," Anderson says at an ACT rehearsal space on Grant Avenue. "What I'm interested in doing is finding a way for these two sides to make peace. Our country is horribly divided between the left and the right, and it's my belief that if we relate to each other on a deeply human level, that somehow we can learn from each other."

It's only through the approaching death of Neil - and the prior loss of Dinah and Bill's daughter - that the four characters find a middle ground. The play's title refers to the fear that most terminally ill people face: that they'll be paralyzed, or become a vegetable, or experience a level of pain that obliterates their quality of life.

"We talk about the physical pain," Anderson says, "but how far into emotional pain do you think you would go in order to keep living?"

Anderson is a short, slight woman with a plucky, commanding personality. In stature and attitude, she resembles Holly Hunter, whom she directed in the terrific 1993 TV movie "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom." She grew up in Los Altos Hills and worked as an actress before discovering her metier as a writer.

From the beginning, Anderson says, she was drawn to provocative material. Her play "Leaving Normal," which was renamed "Normal" for television, starred Tom Wilkinson as a husband and father who decides to change his sex. Her segment of the HBO trilogy "If These Walls Could Talk II" considers an older lesbian (Vanessa Redgrave) who loses her home when her partner dies. "The Baby Dance" tells the story of an infertile woman's "unspeakable ache to love a child."

"The Quality of Life" was first produced in the fall of 2007, at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Metcalf, best known as the sister in the long-running sitcom "Roseanne," played Jeannette, Williams ("The Big Chill") played Dinah and Boutsikaris was Neil. All three are nominated for 2008 Ovation Awards, the Los Angeles equivalent to the Tonys.

When ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff scheduled "The Quality of Life" in the 2008-09 season, original cast members Metcalf, Williams and Boutsikaris were all signed. But when Metcalf was offered the TV series "Easy Money," she told Anderson she would have to miss weeknight performances. Perloff came up with the idea of double-casting the part of Jeannette, allowing Metcalf to play weekends and bringing in former ACT actress Caroline Lagerfelt ("Mary Stuart") for weeknights.

It seemed like a strange, untenable proposition. Rotating Metcalf and Lagerfelt in the same role meant that the other three cast members would rehearse with two different actresses, finding a separate rhythm and balance with each. "We all knew the double casting was going to be very difficult," Anderson says.

The backstage drama didn't end there. In mid-October, Metcalf got word that her TV series had gone on hiatus, meaning she was free after all to play each performance of "The Quality of Life." At that point, Lagerfelt approached Anderson and offered to bow out of the production - even though she'd fallen in love with the character and rehearsed it for three weeks.

"She was going to be a marvelous Jeannette," Anderson says, "and there was no way I would turn to a professional actress, especially of her caliber, and say, 'Sorry, we don't need you anymore.' (But) Caroline came to me and said, 'I love this play and I respect it too much to not want to see it have the best chance.' I was astounded by her generosity. And also her wisdom."

On Tuesday, as the country learns the result of one of the most contentious presidential elections in memory, "The Quality of Life" will play, as scheduled, at the American Conservatory Theater. TV sets will be placed in the lobby so audience members can check the results during intermission.

When asked if the audience's concentration wouldn't be split between the play and the election results, Anderson seemed surprised at the notion. "I think it's just the opposite. I think on election night, people are going to be eating this play up because it's going to resonate with everything they're feeling about the election.

"Why do we make theater? Why do we create movies or TV series? It's because people need an outlet when times are difficult or complex."


Quality of Life: Through Nov. 23. American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets: $17-$82. (415) 749-2228 act-sf.org".

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