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Review: Bible Thumpers Shed Tears, Crack Wise: S.F. Stage

The Quality of Life


November 20, 2008

By Stephen West

Actors, from left, Laurie Metcalf as Jeannette, JoBeth Williams as Dinah, and Steven Culp as Bill take part in a performance of "The Quality of Life" at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco on Oct. 24, 2008. Performances of the play, which is written and directed by Jane Anderson, continue through Nov. 23. Photographer: Kevin Berne/A.C.T.
"The Quality of Life," Jane Anderson's play about a conservative couple from Ohio who visit their liberal relatives in Northern California, can't quite decide whether it wants to be a lightweight comedy or a touching drama.

In the staging at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, Bill and Dinah are earnest, religious and still grieving over the recent death of their daughter when they travel west to visit Jeannette and Neil.

The California couple has their own problems: A forest fire burned down their house in a remote canyon, and they're living in a yurt and cooking their meals outdoors. Neil, a distinguished anthropologist, has terminal cancer.

The schematic framework -- two straight arrows fighting their own culture war with two tree-hugging free spirits -- seems worthy of a sitcom. Sometimes, the dialogue sounds that way, too. When Neil wants to smoke some pot to relieve his pain, Bill says he'll wait in the car.

"It's heirloom pot," Jeannette wisecracks. "He can trace it back to what came over on the Mayflower."

There's no shortage of stereotypes. Jeannette and Neil are proudly, pretentiously anti-establishment. When she serves lunch, it includes seaweed and avocado. She tries to teach Dinah to ululate like grieving women do in the Middle East.

In return, Bill tries to persuade Neil "to take Jesus into your heart."

'Dull Cousin'

The play also veers into emotionally serious territory, and sometimes it works. Dennis Boutsikaris gives a fine, understated performance as Neil, slowly dragging his failing body around the stage while trying to remain upbeat and civil to his guests.

JoBeth Williams is also effective as Dinah, who's self-aware enough to describe herself to Jeannette as "your dull cousin from Ohio." Her tears for her daughter seem real.

Laurie Metcalf as the shrill Jeannette and Steven Culp as the pig-headed Bill are more like stick figures. They deliver some amusing lines, but they never quite become fully formed characters. (All of the actors except Culp were cast in the play's premiere last year at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.)

The two-hour production, directed by the playwright, is greatly aided by Donald Eastman's evocative set -- a mammoth tree sheltering the yurt and outdoor cooking area. Lydia Tanji's low- key costumes nicely convey the sociology of the characters (pink embroidered blouse, khaki pants and white Keds for Dinah, purple caftan for Jeannette).

Yet the play remains ambivalent to the end, its characters little changed by all their conflict. As Dinah observes to her cousin, "What else do we have in common but our grief?"

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