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

Ramping up to the Tony Awards

This Sunday, the Tony Awards will be handed out.
Here’s what you need to know (and get busy organizing your Tony party — we’ve got to get those dismal ratings out of the basement so CBS will continue broadcasting the darn things).

For the first time, there will be pre-ceremony Tony Concert chock full of juicy musical numbers from all the nominated shows. In the Bay Area the concert will be at 1 p.m. Sunday, June 15 on KPIX-TV. Mario Lopez (currently playing Zach in A Chorus Line) hosts, and we’ll see numbers from 10 musicals: A Catered Affair, Cry-Baby, Grease, Gypsy, In The Heights, Passing Strange, South Pacific, Sunday in the Park with George, The Little Mermaid and Xanadu—on stage at the Allen Room at Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, with its spectacular, floor-to-ceiling views of Central Park South visible to viewers of the telecast.

Nominees who perform on the program include Laura Benanti (Gypsy), Daniel Breaker and Stew (Passing Strange), Kerry Butler (Xanadu), Daniel Evans (Sunday in the Park with George), Faith Prince (A Catered Affair) and Loretta Ables Sayre (South Pacific).

“We’ve tried very hard not to cannibalize anything that will be on the actual Tony telecast, but just to whet people’s appetites for June 15,” says The Broadway League’s Jan Friedlander Svendsen, who is an executive producer of the special. “We purposely didn’t want this in costume, we didn’t want big production numbers. We wanted it to feel very intimate. And we wanted to have those up-close-and-personal profiles.”

Actor nominees who are interviewed during the pre-Tony telecast include Laurence Fishburne, who talks about his role as a Supreme Court justice in Thurgood, and Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood, who reveal a touching story from the casting of their revival of Macbeth. Steppenwolf Theatre Company members Laurie Metcalf (November) and Deanna Dunagan, Amy Morton and Rondi Reed from the Best Play nominee August: Osage County celebrate the success of Steppenwolf-ers on Broadway this season—the roster also includes Martha Plimpton and Kevin Anderson—who all told represent six different Broadway shows.

“One of the issues with the Tonys is, often times, not all of our nominees are as well known as, say, Oscar nominees,” says Svendsen. “It’s great to let audiences be exposed to some of those who aren’t as well known. It’s kind of like the Olympics. Many of those athletes aren’t as famous, and one of my favorite parts of watching the Games is getting to know those athletes from a human interest side. Then I have an emotional connection with them and a more rooting interest in who’s going to win.”

The Awards, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg (thank God someone on “The View” cares about theater since Rosie O’Donnell’s departure) begin at 8 p.m. on TV, but watching the tape delay is so retro. Why not tune into the live Webcast? Past Tony winners Michael Cerveris and Julie White host. Log on to for all the details.

On the broadcast, we’ll get musical numbers from all four of the Best Musical nominees (Cry-Baby, In The Heights, Passing Strange and Xanadu) and the four Best Musical Revival nominees (Grease, Gypsy, Sunday in the Park with George and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific).

Also represented will be three other new Broadway musicals: A Catered Affair, The Little Mermaid and The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein. And just for good measure, Rent and The Lion King will also make appearances.

Video memories from past Tony winners, clips from nominated shows and a whole lot more await you at, your one-stop shop for Tony Award information.

To whet your appetite, here’s Passing Strange on “The View.”

Carrie Fisher hits the road

The force is most certainly with her.

Carrie Fisher, fresh from her hit Berkeley Repertory Theatre show Wishful Drinking, a one-woman autobiographical play, is taking the show on the road. And no wonder: in 9 1/2 weeks, the show took in $1.3 million.

Producer Jonathan Reinis is sending Wishful across the country. The first stop isn’t so far away, just down south a little at San Jose Repertory Theatre in July 23-Aug. 2. The next stop is across the country at the Arena Stage at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C. Sept. 5-28.

The rest of the tour is sort of a regional theater hopscotch: Lensic Theatre in Santa Fe, N.M. (June 18-22); Hartford Stage in Connecticut (Aug. 6-17); and Huntington Theatre Company in Boston (Oct. 14-26).

Wishful Drinking, a delightful evening of Fisher sipping Coke Zeros and telling tales from her Hollywood life, is directed by Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, who recently has been specializing in solo shows. He directed Sarah Jones’ Bridge and Tunnel all the way to Broadway and a special Tony Award.

No one would be at all surprised to see Fisher end up on the Great White Way. In other good Fisher news, word is she’s adapting her most recent wonderful novel, The Best Awful (sort of a sequel to Postcards from the Edge) for HBO.

Since leaving Theatre on the Square (now the Post Street Theatre) in San Francisco, the Berkeley-based Reinis has been a busy man. He’s also touring Jane Anderson’s The Quality of Life starring JoBeth Williams and Laurie Metcalf. That tour opens in October at American Conservatory Theater.

Could this be the future of touring theater — bypassing the commercial stage and taking advantage of the regional theaters’ nonprofit status and subscription audiences?