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The Quality of Life - "Crackling, Fast-Moving!"

(c) Beyond Chron

October 31, 2008

By Lee Hartgrave

Bill (Steven Culp), right; Neil (Dennis Boutsikrtis) and Jeannete (Laurie Metcalf) in "The Quality of Life."
Jane Anderson has written a powerful play that touches every emotion in the book. Bill and Dinah -- are a very religious midwestern couple. Dinah wants to visit their free-spirited cousin Jeannette and her husband Neil. These four people are headed for a collision of beliefs, what marriage means, and the meaning of life.

Anderson was inspired to write this play from her own brother's experience in the Mt. Vision fire of 1995. Her brother and his wife lost everything in the devastating fire – but being the free spirits that they are, they put together a makeshift encampment in the Oakland Hills after the fire swept away their home. Among the charred trees, they turned an Urt (a Mongolian Hut) into a beautiful living space. Whatever they could find in the burnt ruins they hung it from the dead tree branches. There was a Tea Kettle, aluminum trimming from the windows that was melted into what looks like sculptures and other memorabilia. The kitchen was open air. That means that they cooked outside. As Jeannette says: "When it rains, I don't have to cook."

The fire is not the only disaster to fall on this couple. Neil has cancer, and it is taking a turn for the worse. They have come to terms with his oncoming death. Neil and Jeannette have a strong bond between them. One very touching moment is when Jeannette tells Bill and Dinah their theory about death. She describes death as a bubble that is beautiful and delicate – but it could burst at any moment. This couple is not into gloom and doom. At least there weren't until Bill and Dinah arrived. Bill is an uptight Christian. Neil smokes pot to ease his pain. Bill doesn't like that. "You are putting us all in danger by smoking that illegal stuff" he yells. He leaves to go to the car down the road, until Neil finishes his treatment.

Dinah, Bills wife talks and talks constantly. She is trying to fill gaps, when they don't need to be filled with words. Neil even tells her that she doesn't have to make constant conversation to make him feel better. Later in the play, Dinah who no longer loves her Christian husband Bill takes a few puffs on some "Pot". "It's tastes like Hay in a Barn. Is that why they call it Grass?" These humor moments keep the play from being totally depressing.

Bill and Dinah used to be in love. But after their daughter was raped and murdered they drifted apart. The death was more than they could bear. Bill relies on his faith to get him through the pain. Dinah and Bill rarely talk to each other. They never go out or do anything together. Dinah had to beg him to visit her cousins, who are completely the opposite in beliefs and philosophy. Jeannette and Neil are facing a great tragedy. And even after they lost their home and all their belongings, they try to live an upbeat life. They don't dwell on tragedy. But for Bill and Dinah – they might as well be as dead as their marriage is.

The Quality of Life is as passionate and profound as you're likely to see on any stage. It's shattering and riveting from start to finish. It'll get you talking. The minute you leave the theater you will be turning on your cell phone and calling a friend. The play is that good. Not to mention the electrifying performances.

Here is the amazing star-studded cast: Laura Metcalf Jeannette) – "A Brave engrossing performance!" Jo Beth Williams (Dinah) – "just the right nuances and steadfastly perfect!" Steven Culp (Bill) – "Quite simply, masterful!" Dennis Boutsikaris – "Spellbinding!" This isn't just any old play – it's an epic! It should, and probably will be on Broadway.

At the American Conservatory Theatre on Geary

RATING: FOUR GLASSES OF CHAMPAGNE!!!! (highest rating) – trademarked –

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