Saturday, November 22, 2008

"The Quality of LIfe": ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG

It is rare when the curtain doesn't come up on an A.C.T. show to reveal a multilayered and complex set, usually with a huge staircase and glorious period furniture. Not this time. Jane Anderson's brilliant "The Quality of Life" opens on two chairs and a tree. Bill (Steven Culp) sits in one chair, Dinah (JoBeth Williams) in the other. Though their conversation is about traveling to California to see Dinah's cousin, the subtext reveals that their daughter, Cindy, has died in some terrible way, an event with which neither parent has been able to come to grips. At the end of this short opening sequence, Bill walks away and leaves Dinah crying in her chair.

THEN, the curtain parts again and the true set is revealed: a fantastic yurt, somewhere in the California desert, into which cousin Jeanette (Laurie Metcalf) and her husband Neil (Dennis Boutsikaris) have moved after their home has burnt to the ground, and after Neil has been diagnosed with incurable cancer.

Bill and Dinah arrive, and for the rest of the two-act 90-minute performance we are presented with an existential and often hysterically funny dilemma: under what circumstances is a dying man allowed to end his own life? Bill and Dinah have embraced Jesus after their daughter's death, so Bill, especially, is infuriated on religious grounds at Neil's decision to commit suicide. Dinah -- she's not so sure, even about God. "I love the son, but I cannot STAND the father," she says, during an especially hilarious section where she has smoked some pot with Neil and Jeanette while Bill is in the bathroom. "Sacrifice his son in such a cruel way? What kind of a monster is that? Am I high?"

The entire cast is first-rate. The two women steal the show, with Metcalf's Jeanette getting the funniest lines but Williams's Dinah allowed the most growth. We see raw suffering in every line of her dialogue, each slide of her knitting needles, even in the way she stands by herself, lost in thought. This is the kind of performance only a great actress can pull off.

The ending is perhaps a little anticlimactic, but then again so is life. "The Quality of Life" is not about death, but about how we all choose to live. It's terrific.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG

After much thought, The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Quality of Life" 3 1/2 Stars with a Bangle of Praise. This is an excellent rating, well earned by the excellent cast, the crisp and excellent direction (by the author, Jane Anderson) and the wonderful set (Donald Eastman) and provocative lighting (Kent Dorsey). The Bangle of Praise is for any number of great lines, like Jeanette's answer to Bill:

(Bill) "Would you like to accept Jesus Christ?"
(Jeanette) "No thanks, I'm good."

We would be looking at a four star production except for one nagging niggle: Neil, though dying of multiple cancers, was able to seemingly recover from his agonizing condition whenever he felt like it to deliver a perfect line or two. But others might not agree. Perhaps the point of the entire show is just this: life is messy and it doesn't always make sense. We feel "The Quality of Life" could have even been longer -- and you don't hear that often on this page.

"The Quality of Life"
A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Tue-Sun $20-$65

No comments: