The Quality of Life
Written and directed by Jane Anderson
American Conservatory Theater
October 24-November 23, 2008
Laurie Metcalf, Dennis Boutsikaris. Photo: Kevin Berne
There are those who may tell you that Jane Anderson’s “The Quality of Life” is about the Oakland Hills fire. It’s not. The moving play at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (ACT) is about love, loss, grief and – well – the quality of life. Directed by the playwright, it has an impressive cast that seems to have stepped right off your television screen: Steppenwolf alumna and Tony and Emmy winner Laurie Metcalf (“Roseanne”), JoBeth Wiliams (“The Big Chill,” “Frasier”) and handsome Steven Culp who, despite his many theatrical credits and awards, may best be remembered as Bree’s first husband on “Desperate Housewives.” Best of all, is New York actor Dennis Boutsikaris (currently playing Paul Wolfowitz in Oliver Stone’s “W”) as Metcalf’s husband, Neil, a university professor quietly and bravely dying of cancer. His is an outstanding portrayal within a very good cast.
That the other three characters don’t come off quite as well is less their fault than the playwright’s. They are stereotypes, almost to the point of caricature. Jeannette (Metcalf) the professor’s wife, is Berkeleyer-than-thou with her tie-dyed, flowing clothes (actually quite eye-catching and by costumer Lydia Tanji), free and easy language and healthy diet/pot-smoking lifestyle. Her home destroyed, she lives in a yurt with twisted, melted relics of the past hanging like bizarre sculptures from the trees. Steeped in a variety of ethnic traditions (her husband is an anthropologist), she ululates for her sadness and drinks a great deal of wine. Aside from that, she appears to be a very nice and intelligent woman.
The other couple, Dinah (Williams) and Bill (Culp) is a pair of uptight, God-fearing Midwesterners who recently lost their only child to a violent, random murder. Their characters may be stilted but their grief is painfully real. When Dinah talks Bill into visiting her California cousin for a weekend, in order to escape their unrelenting sorrow, a genuine culture clash occurs. It’s Bill, the born-again Christian, vs. Neil, the genial agnostic who accepts his illness with uncommon grace and Dinah, with her knitting and pink sneakers, vs. her colorful cousin. Dinah proves to be the more adaptable; she eats the weird food, compliments the yurt and even sneaks a hit of Neil’s medicinal marijuana when her husband’s back is turned. But Bill is unyielding, narrow-minded and zealous in his attempt to make the “sinful” Californians see the religious light.
When the visitors learn that Neil plans to take his own life before the pain of his cancer becomes unbearable and that Jeannette has joined him in a suicide pact, it really hits the fan. The title of the play jumps out at you. For Neil, mere life is less important than its quality. Jeannette cannot even contemplate going on without her love. For Bill – who goes through the mundane details of each day in a stupor of grief for his dead daughter – suicide is a sin against God, pure and simple. Dinah’s not so sure. As personally devastating as her cousin’s decision is, she envies the motivation – a love that transcends all earthly concerns. The light has long gone out of her own marriage, a situation only exacerbated by the loss of her child. Dinah has problems that knitting and putting up preserves cannot mask and Williams gives a powerful portrayal of this woman in quiet turmoil.
Each actor is superb in his or her own way. While the first act has some very funny moments, based in the disparity of lifestyles, the second is devoted to the grief that is consuming them all. Metcalf truly comes into her own as she reads the letter that she and Neil plan to send to their friends just before they die. Boutsikaris is riveting as he delivers his final lecture to his class, the anthropological content a thinly-veiled metaphor for his wish that his wife continues to live after he is gone. Even Culp steps out of Bill’s rigid shell in order to extend a hand of reconciliation to his suffering wife.
The ending is inconclusive, and a little unsatisfying. Will Jeannette really keep her word to her dying husband and go on living after he is gone? She says so but one wonders. Will Dinah and Bill pull their lives together? They do go off hand-in-hand to plant an avocado tree in the backyard but the clouds surrounding them are so heavy it may be impossible to break through to some sunshine. Playwright Anderson has set up these dichotomies and gives us no answers. The questions, however, are worth pondering.