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'Quality of Life': the Highest

(c) The Examiner

November 5, 2008

Janos Gereben

Jane Anderson's "The Quality of Life," onstage at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, is a brilliant exception to the predictable and obvious.

That's not because the author is clever in manipulating the material and the audience. It's a tremendous play exactly because Anderson is not trying to pull strings — of puppets or hearts. She just keeps going her way, with integrity, gentle wisdom and the effortless skill of a born playwright.

Anderson is also the director for this production, which is graced by Donald Eastman's excellent stage design.

The 2007 play, now in its Northern California premiere, has all the essential, glorious elements of theater: It entertains, amuses, compels, makes the audience think, feel, laugh, weep.

What makes this experience all the better is that it could have gone wrong so many ways ... but it doesn't.

A talky play — where the talk is about life and death, grief and dealing with loss — featuring Hollywood stars could have been preachy or a vanity vehicle for well-known actors.

Instead, soon after a somewhat tedious opening scene, "Quality" catches fire and keeps burning to the very end, prompting a sincere standing ovation.

Fire in Northern California is one of the story's defining elements, leaving an academic-artistic-latent-hippy couple without their home, but coping well in their improvised yurt (made in Seattle, not Mongolia), even under the shadow of his terminal cancer.

Dennis Boutsikaris is gently, unpretentiously powerful as the writer at life's end, and Laurie Metcalf as his captivating free-spirit Jeannette. combine their talents to form a complete play almost on its own.

Then add another couple, from the other end of the world — Ohio — with a crisis of their own: the recent murder of their teenage daughter.

Steven Culp as Bill, the father who has turned to intolerant, dogmatic born-again Christianity to deal with his grief, has some astonishing moments of self-centered insensitivity. But the character stays real, not turning into a caricature.

The fourth member of the quartet is perhaps the most remarkable and complex. As Bill's wife, Dinah, JoBeth Williams presents an enormous, believable range, from awkward "housewife," to helpless, unending grief, to touching goodness and warmth.

Moved and experiencing a kind of catharsis at the end, this previously jaded old-timer left with four new acquaintances from the play, more real and meaningful than many people in ordinary life. That is Theater.

The Quality of Life
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; some Saturday and Wednesday matinees; closes Nov. 23
Tickets: $17 to $82
Contact: (415) 749-2227;

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