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Theater: Wept away

'Quality of Life' Partly Strained by Playwright's Teary-eyed Indulgence

(c) Pacific Sun

November 7, 2008

By Lee Brady

The Quality of Life is a drama written by the numbers, with all our contemporary fears spelled out in big dramatic moments lightened by clever one-liners. One shudders to think how it might be in lesser hands than these L.A./New York actors who take playwright Jane Anderson's four characters in this American Conservatory Theater production and make us weep at the unfairness of life, laugh at its absurdity and smile gently at the impossibility of getting out of it alive.

Laurie Metcalf is a harried and whip-thin Jeannette, a poet who lives in Northern California with her dying husband, Neil (Dennis Boutsikaris), a university anthropology lecturer. Their house burned and now they live with melted and transformed glass from their recycling bin hanging outside their yurt like stained-glass windows. When Jeannette's cousin from Ohio, Dinah (JoBeth Williams), and her husband Bill (Steven Culp) come to visit, Bill sees the couple as "godless, self-serving liberals." He is an earnest born-again Christian who turned to the church when their college-aged daughter Cindy was brutally murdered. He can't deal with his wife's frequent crying fits, and their marriage is in trouble.

Both couples are threatened by the death of a loved one, one has already occurred and one is happening soon. Both couples are suffering and reaching out for spiritual guidance, and their arguments bring out the central questions of the play: Is life a gift or a responsibility? How much pain can you bear, and what are your options? Playwright Anderson, who also directs, provides some answers; the journey is different for each character, but all end up dealing with love in the here and now. The arguments and resolutions are written large, but if Bill and Dinah are stereotypical red-state rubes, they are balanced by the more attractive (to Bay Area audiences) but equally stereotypical blue-staters, Jeannette and Neil. It is a tribute to Metcalf, Williams, Culp and Boutsikaris that each comes across as uniquely real.

The yurt is center-stage in Donald Eastman's skillful scenic design; a curtain allows for roll-on chairs for a quick view of Dinah and Bill's Ohio living room, and a table in a Northern California diner. Later the cozy interior of the yurt is visible in the final scene. Costumer Lydia Tanji dresses Williams in pastel polyester and gives Metcalf colorful tie-dyed cottons. Richard Woodbury successfully creates the horrendous sounds of a destructive fire, although the music he uses to underscore the emotional action doesn't seem effective or necessary.

"The Quality of Life," even as it deals with contemporary and extreme concerns of life and death, tugs at the heartstrings. Jane Anderson has written—in the best sense—a good old-fashioned weeper.

The Quality of Life runs through Nov. 23 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.; 415/749-2228,

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