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Death Be Not Proud

Four Actors Deliver Spectacular Performances to Illuminate a Death-Focused Play at A.C.T.

(c) The Daily Californian

November 2, 2008

By Christine Borden

It's a quality performance with A.C.T.'s production of "The Quality of Life." The small cast of actors command the space of the stage-despite a large Mongolian tent dominating most it-and lead the audience into their characters' personal tragedies.

The story follows four characters: Neil and Jeanette of Northern California and Bill and Dinah of Ohio. Dinah persuades Bill to visit her cousin Jeanette and respective husband Neil, who lost their home to a fire and are coping with Neil's terminal cancer. Bill and Dinah also have death on the brain: Their daughter was recently murdered. But the big upset comes when Bill and Dinah find out about Neil and Jeanette's intended suicides.

"The Quality of Life" wouldn't stand without a stunning cast, and all the actors bring heartfelt emotions to their characters. Above all stands Laurie Metcalf, whose Jeanette is everything and more one would expect of a liberal Northern Californian. Maybe it's the flip-flops, but Metcalf feels at ease in her character's body: her wild gesticulations, the way she touches Neil with such empathy and tenderness. She doesn't miss a single punch line, yet she doesn't ignore the tragedy either. Her scenes against the cynical and resolved Neil mark a specific point of raw emotion in the play. The audience feels the love behind their characters' strong relationship and the sense of loss that already permeates these last days together. Sentimental, perhaps, but the audience's snivelly noses and tearful eyes would attest to a true connection between stage and seat.

Steven Culp performs a much understated and conservative Bill, a character perfectly antithetical to Jeanette. With a character so strongly Christian and aggressive in his beliefs, Culp could easily make Bill into the villain of the piece, but he shows professional restraint in playing his part. To a Northern Californian crowd, Bill is the guy who judges Jeanette's wine consumption, pooh-poohs the quinoa and criticizes Neil's use of marijuana as pain treatment. But for Culp, Bill is a man with strong convictions and, misguided or not, genuinely wants to help Neil and Jeanette and advise them to the right path. In his last scene, Culp finally shows the vulnerability lying beneath Bill's surface and proves that even the rather rough and brash Bill suffers too.

The actors truly become their characters in their wardrobe provided by costume designer Lydia Tanji. The clothes, in this case, are revealing. Jeanette is a flow of purple fabric and layers: printed top, printed skirt, capris and a crown of long curl hair. As a direct contract, Dinah looks suburban matchy-matchy with a pink V-neck, khaki pants, pink Keds-like shoes and a perky ponytail. Just seeing the two cousins together reveals the distance between them and their opposing lifestyles, which cause them so much conflict in the play's progression.

As a whole, the play runs (but ultimately escapes) the risk of being too expected. In pitting the Northern Californians against the Ohioans, Jane Anderson walks the fine line of stereotyping and setting up the characters as 2-D representatives of their respected groups. After all, Bill's a Bible-thumper and Neil and Jeanette are "spiritual" but not religious people. But with this cast, the characters escape the crutches on which lesser actors would lean. At the American Conservatory Theater, the characters become real people with whom the audience forms alliances. It is possible that the complexity may be lost in translation to another stage, another stage, but the play finds a warm home in San Francisco.

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