Review: `The Quality of Life’

Steven Culp (right), Laurie Metcalf (center) and JoBeth Williams star in Jane Anderson’s drama The Quality of Life at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. Photos by Kevin Berne.

Powerful performances spark quality of ACT’s `Life’


The quality of mercy is terribly strained in American Conservatory Theater’s The Quality of Life, a deceptively accessible new drama written and directed by Jane Anderson.

A savvy TV writer turned playwright, Anderson understands the science of dialogue and how familiar rhythms can lull an audience into that comfortable, in-front-of-the-TV feeling. When the play starts, we’re in the Ohio living room of grieving parents Bill (Steven Culp) and Dinah (JoBeth Williams). He’s reading the paper; she’s knitting. And they’re trying not to talk about the violent death of their only child, a college-age daughter.

From the comfy confines of a Midwestern home, Anderson takes us to the burnt-out Oakland hills and the ruins of what was, for several decades, the home of Dinah’s cousin Jeannette (Laurie Metcalf) and her husband, Neil (Dennis Boutsikaris).

Rather than relocate or rebuild, Jeannette and Neil have chosen to live amid the ashes in a yurt, a Mongolian-designed tent, and to install solar panels that run their computers and their makeshift outdoor kitchen. Household items destroyed in the fire now hang from the dead trees like modern art – melted aluminum window frames, stained glass-like melted bottles, etc. – and for personal needs, there’s a composting outhouse and a claw-foot tub for cleansing soaks.

Jeannette, a poet, and Neil, a socio-cultural anthropology professor, are attempting to exist in a post-disaster paradise of sorts, but there are two major intrusions. One is that Neil’s cancer, which began in the prostate, has spread, and he is now in the final stages of a painful illness. The other is a well-intentioned but awkward visit from the Ohio relatives.

Anderson’s structure is, at first, easy to assess: we’ve got “godless, self-serving liberals,” a variety of which is not uncommon in the Bay Area, and we’ve got born-again Christians from the Bible Belt. Ready, set, clash!

When the topic of conversation turns to issues of faith, drugs or evolution, we get standard-issue responses from both sides. But Anderson is a smart writer who allows her characters dimension beyond dogma, and soon the interactions are deeply personal and guided by rage, fear, grief and doubt.

The two-hour play—unfolding on a beautifully detailed, realistic set by Donald Eastman — builds undeniable momentum. Act 1 ends with a shocker, and Act 2 jumps right into a powerful life-and-death intensity. There’s ample humor along the way, especially when Dinah tries her first hit of pot, but make no mistake. This is pure drama.

Where Anderson stumbles is at the end, or maybe I should say ends, plural. She doesn’t know how to conclude the play, so she does it about three times, never quite successfully. If the play, produced in association with the Geffen Playhouse, which hosted the play’s premiere last year in Los Angeles, and Jonathan Reinis Productions, is going to head, as rumored, to New York, the end must be addressed.

Neil delivers a final, fascinating lecture, but it’s hard not to think about the late Randy Pausch, and his bestselling book, The Last Lecture. And the two scenes that follow don’t have the emotional impact a play this emotionally alive deserves.

The Quality of Life, for all its assets as a powerful play, is also a showcase for some incredible actors giving performances so natural, so powerfully connected to one another that they can make you forget you’re watching actors famous for being on TV.

Metcalf’s hip, artsy Jeannette never lets you forget her Midwestern roots, even though she herself might want to. Her connection with Boutsikaris’ Neil, a brilliant, affable man trying to make peace with mortality, is profound. This couple’s deep love is key to the plot and offers the play’s greatest emotional touchstone.

Culp has the toughest role as the righteous, rather narrow-minded Bill, who foists his god on anyone he feels might be on the wrong path, which, of course, Neil and Jeannette are. But rather than come off as a brain dead stiff who spouts the God line, Culp’s Bill is clearly guided in his spiritual rigor by the loss of his child and a grief so debilitating he likely couldn’t move without the lifeline of faith.

And then there’s Williams’ Dinah, who made my heart ache. Because Dinah is a kind woman who has devoted herself to family, she could be easily dismissed as a robo-homemaker or a Jesus freak who could use a dose of enlightenment and women’s lib.

But Dinah is bright, empathetic, nurturing and impossible to dismiss. She has a sense of humor, a sense of adventure and a clear enough sense of her life to know people like Jeannette and Neil might find her ridiculous or, worse, boring.

Her connection to God isn’t nearly as sure as her husband’s, and she’s got far too much life left in her to let the waves of grief that submerge her completely pull her under. Dinah is a strong, beautiful woman. We recognize her and love her, and that’s one of the reasons the ending is dissatisfying: it shortchanges Dinah’s emotional journey.

Everyone in this four-hander pulls his or her emotional weight, and even with its muddled ending(s), The Quality of Life is a rich, satisfying theater experience that engages the head and especially the heart.


The Quality of Life continues through Nov. 23 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Metcalf, Williams, Lagerfelt star in ACT’s `Quality of Life’

ACT’s The Quality of Life stars, from left JoBeth Williams, Dennis Boutsikaris and Laurie Metcalf. Photo courtesy of the Geffen Playhouse and Michael Lamont.

American Conservatory Theater has announced full casting for its follow-up to the season-opening hit Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Jane Anderson’s The Quality of Life, which takes place in the post-fire Oakland Hills, had its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles last year and now writer/director Anderson and ACT, in association with the Geffen and Jonathan Reinis Productions, bring some of that starry cast up north.

Laurie Metcalf, a member of Chicago’s illustrious Steppenwolf Theatre Company and a regular on the sitcom “Roseanne,” plays Jeannette, whose living on the plot of land where her house used to be with her husband, Neil (played by two-time Obie-winner Dennis Boutsikaris, a seasoned Broadway and off-Broadway actor). Jeannette and Neil receive a visit from her Midwestern relatives, Dinah and Bill, played respectively by JoBeth Williams (Poltergeist, The Big Chill) and Steven Culp (most recently seen here in ACT’s Blackbird last season and known for playing the dearly departed Rex Van de Kamp on TV’s “Desperate Housewives”).

When you’re dealing with stars, you’re also dealing with their busy schedules. Metcalf has previous commitments, so she’s sharing the role of Jeannette with Caroline Lagerfelt, who played Inter Dominguez on the Bay Area-filmed “Nash Bridges” for five years. She also played Queen Elizabeth in ACT’s Mary Stuart.

“I can’t wait to see how Laurie and Caroline, two enormously gifted actresses, put their own unique spin on this wildly complex character,” said director/writer Anderson. “Although the intent of the script will stay the same, it’s going to be a different show every night. That’s what makes live theater so exciting — all the marvelous variables that come with each performance.”

Anderson, who splits her time between Los Angeles and Marin County, was inspired to write the play after her brother’s experience with the Pt. Reyes/Mt. Vision fire of 1995. She sets the play in Jeannette and Neil’s encampment, where they are living rather peacefully in the ashes of their former home. The couple is at a key moment in their relationship as Neil’s cancer returns. The visit from Bill and Dinah — an attempt to reach out for solace from estranged family members — comes in the wake of the couple’s loss of their daughter. So these four people — Bay Area liberal and Midwestern conservative — reunite amid the turmoil of grief and life-changing decisions.

“There’s a terrible rift in this country between the far right and far left,” Anderson said. “One of the things I hope to achieve with The Quality of Life is to help the audience recognize that in the face of this dichotomy of ideals, there’s the possibility of finding a common human condition.”

Anderson added that she has done “extensive work” on the script since last year’s premiere at the Geffen: “Having this unique mix of original cast and new members is the optimal way to take this play to its next incarnation.”

The Quality of Life runs Oct. 24-Nov. 23 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $14-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit