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

Attention Poltergeisters and Big Chillis! JoBeth Williams has arrived

If you haven’t spent a lot of time in New York or Southern California, chances are your view of JoBeth Williams is limited to what you’ve seen in movies (Poltergeist, The Big Chill) or on TV (“Frasier,” “Baby M”).

Williams is actually a veteran stage actor. The Houston, Texas native (and daughter of an opera singer), got started the usual way: in high school musicals. In college, she shied away from the theater because her high school counselors had said something to the effect of : “Oh, that’s lovely, dear, you want to be an actress. But what do you want to do in real life?” So, at Brown University, Williams aimed toward a psychology major.

The lure of the drama department, however, was strong. Shortly into her college career, she got sucked into a theater audition and that was that.

She became a member of Trinity Repertory Company, eventually moved to New York and just kept acting.

Movies eventually called – remember her fantastically awkward hallway nude scene in Kramer vs. Kramer, her film debut? – but she never fully gave up theater.

“I never though of theater as a stepping stone to movies or TV,” Williams says. “I have always said I wanted to keep doing theater because it’s what I love most.”

And so she has. Last year, Williams appeared at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in a new play written and directed by Jane Anderson, The Quality of Life, set in the remains of a burned Oakland hills home. Her co-stars included Laurie Metcalf (of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and TV’s “Roseanne”), Scott Bakula (“Quantum Leap”) and Dennis Boutsikaris.

That play, and most of that cast, has moved north to San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. Metcalf (below right with Williams, photo courtesy of Geffen Playhouse and Michael Lamont) and Boutsikaris play an East Bay couple dealing with major illness as well as the loss of their home. Williams and Stephen Culp, replacing Bakula, play Bill and Dinah, Midwestern relatives dealing with their own loss who come out West for a fraught family reunion.

Williams has appeared in San Francisco before – in the long-running The Vagina Monologues at the Alcazar Theatre, but this is her first major Bay Area drama.

Williams recalls the first time she read Anderson’s script that she immediately wanted to do it.

“I really empathized with my character and the loss she’s been through,” Williams says. “Maybe it’s because I’m from Texas and have cousins who are not born again but good Christian people, salt of the earth people. Her sense of hope and hopefulness moves me tremendously. Reading the play, there were times I didn’t know if I was supposed to laugh or cry, so I did both.”

The rehearsal process, according to Williams, was painful.

“Because of the nature of the material, dealing on a daily basis with that kind of loss…it felt like someone had beaten me up by the end of the day,” Williams says. “At the same time it was exhilarating to get to practice your craft and go into deep places. When you can do it, when you’re well used, it’s cathartic. It was difficult but incredibly rewarding.”

If the ACT run goes well, Williams hints that The Quality of Life could be heading for New York.

Assessing her stage career up to this point, Williams calls her stint as Cleopatra in the Old Globe’s Antony and Cleopatra one of her favorites. She’s also fond of Body Awareness, a play she did earlier this year at New York’s Atlantic Theater Company.

“The play is by this young writer, Annie Baker, and I play a high school teacher in Vermont who has a son with Asperger syndrome and a girlfriend who’s a college professor,” Williams explains. “This straight man, a visiting artist, comes to stay with us and it’s just a very funny play about jealousy and relationships and the difficulty of dealing with people. It’s something I think should be seen in San Francisco.”

Based in Los Angeles with her husband, TV and film director John Pasquin, the 59-year-old Williams still works regularly in film and on TV.

One of her favorite roles came in the 1991 big-screen comedy Switch with Ellen Barkin.

“I got to play this rich bitch, a really mean sort of snotty woman who kills a man,” Williams says with glee. “It’ was so much fun to play that part. I’m mostly cast as a sweet, nice mommy, but that’s really not who I am. I’m really a raving bitch. It was nice to play something closer to home. That’s what’s fun.”

When Williams was doing The Quality of Life in Los Angeles, she was impressed by the devotion of co-star Bakula’s fans – called Leapers after his old sci-fi TV series – who would come to the play night after night and bring the actor flowers and fruit and such.

There would be people at the stage door with Poltergeist posters and such for Williams to sign as well, but her fans weren’t so organized. Perhaps they’ll get organized in the Bay Area. But what would such a group be called?

Williams ponders the question for a moment. “I don’t know, maybe Poltergeisters…or Big Chillis?”

The Quality of Life begins previews today (Friday, Oct. 24), opens Wednesday, Oct. 29 and continues through Nov. 23 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $14-$57 for previews and $17-$82 for regular performances. Call 415-749-2228 or visit for information.

On a personal note, I happen to think Williams’ performance as a traumatized mother in Poltergeist ranks as one of THE great mother-in-distress performances on film. The fact that the performance is in a hit horror film means – for whatever reason – that Williams’ superb work has been criminally underrated. Watch the movie again – Williams isn’t in a horror movie. She’s in the most intense family drama imaginable. She’s extraordinary, and she grounds a nearly ungroundable film.

On the lighter side, follow this link to hear the charming Williams talk about her Kramer vs. Kramer nude scene:

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