Jane Anderson Bravely Explores Rebirth After Burnout
by Tyler Jeffreys
The stage is set ablaze—with energy, not fire. We get couple vs. couple, Liberal vs. Conservative, and Agnostic vs. Christian. Each character tries to keep his or her ego afloat, while struggling to stay positive.
“The Quality of Life” by Jane Anderson gives us tools for life—including acceptance and forgiveness—to rebuild shattered, burnt-out love.
It’s 1991, right after the Oakland/Berkeley Hills’ fires. Four superb actors draw us into their post fire lives, making it more gripping than any popular Lifetime drama. The actors commit to their characters’ points of view, brilliantly.
Suburban Ohioans Bill (multi-dimensional CJ Smith) and Dinah (expressive Sindu Singh) come from a simple, midwestern life to visit their progressive California cousins, Jeannette (spunky Bonnie DeChant) and Neil (sensitive Ted Barker).
Our hearts are bombarded by Bill and Dinah’s anxious and avoidant marital maneuvers. Dinah’s eyes open wide in earnest as she tries to shake up Bill. But Bill openly ignores Dinah’s pleading, intimate advances, which she disguises as small talk. As they visit Jeanette and Neil, we understand the roots of Bill and Dinah’s marital struggles.
Jeannette and Neil, left homeless after the big fires, set up a Mongolian yurt in their desolate backyard. The yurt protrudes from a backdrop covered with painted pine trees, boasting detailed wood carving and Mongolian markings, which make it quite the art piece. The beautiful set by R.”Dutch” Fritz offers a cozy, welcoming picnic space.
I love how natural the whole production feels, from the set to the actors. Two everyday couples are grieving, revealing secrets, and arguing about the “right” road to follow. “The Quality of Life” speeds us along for two beautiful and refreshing hours.
In the first act, the drama is subtle, and I even start sympathizing with Bible-thumping, uptight, emotionally unavailable Bill. When Jeannette, Neil and Dinah socialize, we see Bill suffer alone, unable to connect. Instead, he blurts out: “How hot did the fire get?” I chuckle when Neil has a legit numerical answer for him.
Neil’s costume cracks me up because he wears socks with adventure sandals. Very Berkeley Hills, thanks to costume designer Christine U’Ren. Even through a health crisis, Neil manages to live enthusiastically and full of curiosity. His swagger is undeniable, in contrast to Bill’s buttoned down behavior, in khakis.
Colorful as the set, the California couple hides behind grandiose sentiments and hippie spirituality. Jeanette goes into long, awkward monologues about her compatibility with Neil, recounting their romantic adventures.
But Dinah responds with her own monologues about her recent grief and precious family memories. The monologues in the script distract me; but I hop back onboard thanks to the actors’ chemistry and tenacity.
Both couples teach me that sometimes a relationship must burn for a while, so new growth can emerge from the ashes.
A fascinating play, well-acted—seeing it has surely improved my “quality of life.”
“The Quality of Life” by Jane Anderson, directed by Katina Psihos Letheule, by Altarena Playhouse, Alameda, California. Info: Altarena.org – to June 26, 2022.
Cast: Ted Barker, Bonnie DeChant, Sindhu Singh, and CJ Smith.
Banner photo: Ted Barker, Sindu Singh, CJ Smith, and Bonnie DeChant. Photos by Grizzly De Haro