Reviewed by Judy Richter
"The Quality of Life" deals with profound issues, but playwright Jane Anderson introduces them gradually and leavens them with humor, especially in the first act. American Conservatory Theater is giving the work its second production featuring three of the original four actors from the 2007 premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Once again the playwright directs.
The four actors portray two couples, one from Ohio, embodying typical Midwestern values along with born-again Christianity. The other, far more liberal couple live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a wildfire has destroyed their home. The Midwesterners, Dinah (JoBeth Williams) and Bill (Steven Culp), are still grieving from their college-age daughter's murder a year ago. On the surface, they're functioning, but in many ways their relationship is suffering. The Californians, Neil (Dennis Boutsikaris) and Jeannette (Laurie Metcalf), are living in a yurt on their blackened property while coping with the realization that Neil is dying of cancer. Upon hearing about Neil and Jeannette's problems, Dinah, her cousin, and Bill decide to visit them for a weekend.
After the usual pleasantries, the two couples soon realize that they have decidedly different values. Bill is uptight that Neil uses marijuana to assuage his pain. Neil is upset that Bill tries to convert him to his brand of Christianity. Both Dinah and Bill are dismayed when Neil reveals that he plans to commit suicide, which Jeannette calls self-release, rather than go through a terrible death. Dinah is even more horrified when she learns that Jeannette plans to self-release with him because she can't stand the thought of living without him after 29 years of marriage.
All four actors take their characters on their precarious emotional journeys without a false step. That's due to their skill as well as Anderson's script and direction. Most of the action takes place at Jeannette and Neil's home in California. Donald Eastman's set, complemented by Kent Dorsey's lighting, recreates the bleakness of the burned landscape dominated by the yurt in the center, a makeshift kitchen on one side and, on the other, a skeletal tree festooned with burned, warped remains of items like the aluminum window frames. Lydia Tanji's costumes reflect the lifestyles of the two couples, with Dinah and Bill neatly buttoned down and Neil and Jeannette in more flowing clothing. Richard Woodbury's sound varies from the howling of coyotes to the thundering roar of a wildfire.
Because there's so much to ponder as well as laugh at in the script, this is a play with staying power, one that almost demands a second viewing to get everything.