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Intersecting Tragedies

Jane Anderson's 'The Quality of Life' at ACT

(c) Bay Area Reporter

November 6, 2008



By Richard Dodds

Bill wants to engage in an emotional fisticuffs game of "our tragedy is worse than yours," but his wife's cousin and her husband won't put up their dukes. True, they lost their home to a fire and the husband has end-stage cancer, but they seem at peace with their fate, readily ceding Bill the misery award for a murdered daughter, and it drives him ballistic.

That a story of two couples dealing with horrible loss can be so entertaining - yes, even fun - without trivializing the situations is a testament to Jane Anderson's skills as a writer. "The Quality of Life," now at ACT, takes two movie-of-the-week scenarios, does a kind of mash-up, and winds up with a life-affirming message that skirts obvious sentimentality.

The play had its world premiere last year at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, and three of the four original cast members are back for the ACT production, with the playwright again as the director. But it's an entirely new design team that has created the current production, so it isn't a transferred or shared staging upon which many regional theaters have grown fiducially fond.

Anderson, a partnered lesbian with an adopted child, has often based her plays on hot-topic issues such as private adoption ("The Baby Dance"), gender reassignment ("Looking for Normal"), and the Challenger disaster ("Defying Gravity"). And while assisted suicide joins the death of a child and terminal cancer as one of the issues in "The Quality of Life," Anderson takes us deeper into these characters' complicated lives than an encapsulated summary might suggest.

Humor is also abundant, much of it stemming from the cultural clash of Dinah and Bill, born-again but emotionally crippled, who travel to Northern California to visit Dinah's earth-mother cousin Jeanette and her dying humanist professor husband Neil after they have lost their house in a raging blaze reminiscent of the Oakland Hills fire. At times the jokes are too easy, as Bill predictably turns up his nose at Neil and Jeanette's hippie-dippy ways (they live in a yurt, eat seaweed salads, and enjoy medicinal marijuana) and Dinah prattles on nervously while trying to fit in. When Jeanette gives Dinah a lesson in how to loosen tension by ululating, you just know that the uptight Bill is going to return from his walk at that very moment.

But the cast so expertly inhabits the roles that even the sitcom-ish moments can be entertaining because they are sharply played. It's also the kind of cast you find at theaters like the Geffen in LA, where familiar television and film actors find time to stretch their stage muscles between more lucrative screen assignments.

What a pleasure indeed it is to have Laurie Metcalf playing the deceptively high-spirited Jeanette. She knows how to find a precise kernel of humor in commonplace actions, and can also smoothly shift tone so that we are suddenly in an unexpectedly dark place. Dennis Boutsikaris plays her ailing husband Neil with a quiet intensity, a calm that can be broken when his carefully maintained centering is thrown off its axis.

As the fluttery Dinah, for whom small talk and Jesus are her spotty armors against grief, JoBeth Williams manages to project a blithe sadness that hardens after her trip to California. Finally, Steven Culp (who now has the role Scott Bakula created in Los Angeles) is a scary cauldron of repressed anger with a confused concept of God's wrath.

The tragedies for the two couples, both past and upcoming, will never be something the survivors can leave behind. Well-meaning friends want them to move on, but as Anderson lays out in her play, perhaps the best balm is to hold so tightly to the emptiness that it somehow becomes part of your whole.
The Quality of Life will run at ACT through Nov. 23. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 749-2228 or go to act-sf.org.

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