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The Quality of Life

A Brilliant Meditation

Playwright Jane Anderson’s “The Quality of Life", currently at the American Conservatory Theater, is a brilliant meditation on a morass of issues: love, loss, grief, Red State v. Blue State, spiritual transcendence, and the possibility of shared understanding in times of crisis. Given all the issues that snake through the story with the mathematical complexity of a Moebius strip, Anderson, who also directs, displays tremendous skill in weaving her plot points together with seamless ease and opting for relatable, believable characters rather than a grand metanarrative about the human condition.

It is Anderson’s four-person cast that makes the show a success. Two couples, played by Laurie Metcalfe (of “Roseanne” fame), Broadway actor Dennis Boutsikaris, JoBeth Williams (“The Big Chill”), and Steven Culp (from “Desperate Housewives”), preside over the action. Metcalfe plays Jeanette, the wife of Berkeley professor Neil (played by Boutsikaris). Jeanette is perhaps the most vivid character in the play -- the quintessential Berkeley-ite, with her pot-smoking, holistic, freewheeling, tie-dyed raison d’etre. Neil (a congenial scholar with just a smidge of snark) and Jeanette live on a yurt after their home has been destroyed in the fires that ravaged Oakland in the mid-1990s. While Jeanette drowns her sorrows in drink and waxes poetic on culture and religion, flitting from topic to topic like a fickle hummingbird, Neil serves as a bastion of stoic strength. He is also dying of cancer.

The second couple, Dinah (Williams), who is the cousin of Jeanette, and her husband Bill (Culp) represent the opposite extreme -- they are skittish, old-fashioned, unabashedly conventional Midwesterners visiting California for the weekend. We learn that they, too, have recently experienced their own brand of grief: losing their only daughter in a violent murder. Dinah seems to regard their visit to California as an opportunity for escape from the vicissitudes of her suffering (which Williams expertly teases out throughout the performance) and welcomes her cousin’s eccentricities, even going so far as to dabble in some of her medical marijuana. However, her husband Bill is a strident born-again Christian who continually preaches at Neil and Jeanette from the bully pulpit, enjoining them to give up their hippie-dippy ways and accept Jesus Christ as their savior.

Admittedly, there are times when the dichotomy of liberal Californian/evangelical heartlander gets to be somewhat oppressive and stereotypical, but the characters are always likeable, and Anderson’s comedic penchant helps her transcend heavy-handedness most of the time. While the first act is largely spent getting acquainted with the characters, the story quickly comes to a head when we learn that the cancer-stricken Neil is planning to commit suicide, and Jeanette has insisted on following suit due to her love for him. For Neil and Jeanette, quality of life is not dependent on longevity or material items, but on love and togetherness.

To symbolize this, set designer Donald Eastman has made the couple’s yurt the visual focal point -- and around it, the rubble of the couple’s life, pre-fire, hang like wind chimes from a leafless tree, as if in celebration of the past rather than anguish over their tragic fate. Of course, this sets off the evangelical Bill on a religious tirade regarding the sinfulness of suicide. Thankfully, Anderson saves Bill from further caricature by dotting his exposition with the details of Bill and Dinah’s daughter’s death, which serves to shed light on Bill’s emphatic jeremiad. Dinah, on the other hand, is clearly drawn to the romance of the first couple’s suicide pact, which stands in contrast to her own loveless marriage and appears to be a suitable deliverance from a grief that she compares to her own.

In the second act, humor is eschewed quite a bit more (although, to avoid moments of schmaltz, comedy is repeatedly used to deflate some of the overly puffed up serious moments), as Anderson opens up the possibilities for redemption through grief. There are several beautiful moments. As Neil delivers his final lecture to his anthropology class, we learn that he wishes for his wife to continue living. Bill and Dinah, on the other hand, play with the possibilities of reconciliation.

However, while Anderson promises two resolutions, she never quite delivers. We don’t find out if Jeanette actually agrees to go on living after her husband’s death, and we have no idea whether or not Bill and Dinah will work through their unresolved grief. This lack of a rapprochement proves to be more dissatisfying than realistic, and given the enormity of bereavement we’ve seen the characters shoulder throughout the play, the brief wash of sunshine at the end seems disingenuous.

All the same, the powerhouse cast is continuously engaging. Metcalfe’s idiosyncratic performance is golden, and her one-liners are hilarious; Boutsikaris melds geniality with a cynical edge that is poignant and believable; and Williams moves from weepy to emotionally charged with enormous power and restraint. Culp is perhaps the only actor who faced a significant challenge with his role, given that Bill is a creep and something of a cliché. However, Culp offers us moments of tight-lipped vulnerability throughout that serve to soften Bill and make him much more tenable.

Overall, “The Quality of Life” has a certain predictable arc that precludes narrative surprises, but the actors’ wit and chemistry, as well as Anderson’s attention to structure and the fluidity of her dialogue, work to balance the darkness of her themes and create a performance that is always engaging.

Through November 23rd
at the American Conservatory Theater