Thursday, October 30, 2008

End of Days

Wednesday's activities included a mad dash around town trying to knock off a bunch of errands (shopping at Trader Joe's, getting a flu shot at Kaiser Permanente, hitting the A.T.M. for some cash and picking up tickets for an upcoming performance).  As I nervously kept checking the digital time readout at the front of the bus, I felt like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland:

"I'm late.  I'm late.  For a very important date.
No time to say "Hello," "Goodbye"
I'm late. I'm late. I'm late. I'm late."
Not that anyone at MUNI gave a royal fuck.  

I arrived at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco with just moments to spare before the screening of the first film in this year's series of travelogues: 10 Questions For The Dalai Lama. This beautifully-shot documentary by Rick Ray evolved under the strangest of circumstances.  Originally commissioned to make a commercial travel video for an airline, Ray tried to back out of a far from lucrative deal.  At that point he was told that the trip would include an audience with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.   

In the movie industry, that's what you call a real game changer.  

But when he arrived in India, the filmmaker discovered that no follow-up calls had been made to the Dalai Lama from the Hollywood producer's office. Essentially, he was stuck in India on his own.  

Fate and karma have a curious way of conspiring to rock people's worlds.  To Ray's utter astonishment and delight, he learned that his guide just happened to have the Dalai Lama's email address.  

What ensued provided the cinematic ingredients for a hybrid documentary that is (a) part travelogue, (b) part brief history of China's takeover of Tibet, (c) features lots of archival footage showcasing the life of the Dalai Lama, and (d) includes a hefty dose of meditation on the meaning of life.

One of the questions posed to the Dalai Lama by Mr. Ray was why, in all his travels, he has found that people who are poor are often so much happier than those who are rich.  With the usual musical lilt in his voice underlying his practical approach to life, the Dalai Lama reminded Ray that those who have accumulated "things" often feel they have more things they must "protect."  That burden can weigh heavily on one's soul and diminish one's sense of happiness.  

While much has been written both by and about the Dalai Lama, what shines through in Ray's film is the aging monk's mischievious eyes, inquisitive mind, and genuine love of life and laughter. Old King Cole may have been a merry old soul, but the Dalai Lama is obviously no slouch when it comes to enjoying a moment of hilarity at his own expense.

Little did I know how this documentary (and the Dalai Lama's comments about how he hopes to live out his final years) would be a fitting prelude for the evening's performance at the American Conservatory Theater.  Jane Anderson's remarkable new drama, The Quality of Life, proudly takes its place in a long line of plays, operas, and movies which focus on what I like to call preemptive death (the taking of one's life before natural decay rings down the curtain).  

While legions of pro-lifers are concerned with preserving the rights of a fetus, like many adults I'm more interested in finding a decent way to die with dignity when I feel the right moment has come.  I'm certainly not alone in my thoughts.  

People have chosen this path throughout history and literature for a wide variety of reasons. Star-crossed lovers like Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet could not bear the thought of living without each other.  In Nordic mythology (as well as Richard Wagner's Gotterdammerung), Brunnehilde chose self-immolation as a way to rid the ring of its fatal curse. 

In Janacek's The Makropulos Affair, after realizing that eternal youth is accompanied by endless pain and apathy, 337-year-old Emilia Marty decided to forego one more sip of a magic potion in order to die a natural death.  Never one to be upstaged, Puccini's Madama Butterfly looked to the inscription on the knife given to her father by the Mikado (as a suggestion that he commit hari-kiri), which stated that "Who cannot live with honor must die with honor."  

More contemporary dramas include such works as Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother, Brian Clark's Whose Life Is It, Anyway?, Colin Higgins' Harold and Maude, Don DeLillo's Love-Lies-Bleeding, and Thom Fitzgerald's The Event (in which gay men dying of AIDS stage farewell parties during which they say goodbye to friends and family before committing suicide).

The Quality of Life focuses on a quartet of aging baby boomers grappling with the frailty of human life.  As the curtain rises, we meet Dinah (JoBeth Williams) and Bill (Steven Culp), two Ohioans whose lives were recently shattered by their daughter's unexpected and gruesome death.  Looking like a stereotype of Midwestern apple pie morality (and dressed in clothes that could come from any mall or catalog), their loss has caused them to find solace in religion.  

Unfortunately, It seems that the good upstanding folks in in their home town in Ohio don't really like tragedy getting in the way of polite small talk at church.  So when your daughter gets raped and brutally murdered, it's kind of a downer once the novelty wears off.  Bill has not just been "born again," he has become an aggressive proselytizer for letting Jesus solve everyone's problems.  Dinah, meanwhile, has struggled to find comfort in their new church's social network. 

Steven Culp and Jobeth Williams (Photo by Kevin Berne)

When, out of loneliness, Dinah calls a distant cousin who lives in Berkeley, she discovers that not only did Jeannette (Laurie Metcalf) and Neil's home burn to the ground in a recent canyon fire, Neil (Dennis Boutsikaris) is dying of metastatic cancer.  In the hopes of reconnecting with her relative and close childhood friend, Dinah muscles her husband (who clearly doesn't want to get involved) into taking a trip to California.  

Upon arriving in Berkeley, they discover that their West Coast counterparts are essentially camping out in a yurt they have constructed in their back yard, with no plans to rebuild.  They seem bizarrely content to use an outhouse, walk across the property to shower and bathe, and eat outdoors.  When it rains, they happily go to a restaurant.  Jeannette and her husband wear clothing made of soft, loose fabrics that reflect conscious choices of earth tones in the styles of various cultures they have visited in their travels (Neil is an academic specializing in cultural anthropology).  

Just as Dinah and Bill embody the stereotype of an uptight, churchgoing couple from the Midwest, Jeannette and Neil are very much the dope-smoking, wine-drinking, peasant chic organic hippies from California. The fire which destroyed their home has freed them from their attachments to material possessions.  With the clock running out on Neil's health, they are now plotting their final exit.

As soon as Neil needs a hit of medical marijuana, Bill is consumed by his prudish self-righteousness and beats a hasty retreat to the car, where he can listen to some important sporting event on the radio. In a moment of weakness, Dinah gets high with Jeannette and Neil. 

Thinking that her cousin can handle the news (or perhaps just wanting to shock and test her), Jeannette drops a bombshell.  Not only is Neil planning to check out in two weeks, after trying to imagine the quality of life without him,  she is planning to make it a double suicide.

Laurie Metcalf and Dennis Boutsikaras (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The arrival of Bill and Dinah provokes a new chapter in America's culture wars that soon becomes fiercely intense and deeply personal. Familiar arguments about family, religion, suicide, and medical marijuana (as well as various means of coping with the harshest of realities) get examined under a dramatic microscope with surprising results.  

This is a play of raging passions, as Bill and Dinah discover that no amount of religion, ritual and mindlessly going through the motions to keep up appearances can save a marriage that has imploded from their profound lack of communication.  And, contrary to what she had assumed, it turns out that Neil does not want Jeannette to join him in death. What she considers selfless strikes her husband as a much more selfish act than he had previously let on.

Some new plays depend on a star personality to anchor the evening. However, The Quality of Life is so well written and directed that it stands above the actors in a very strange way.  The strengths of Anderson's play remind me very much of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  (built to stand the test of time).

At its world premiere in Los Angeles The Quality of Life was mounted on a thrust stage in a 115-seat auditorium.  In its new production on the Geary Theater's proscenium stage (facing a 1,000-seat, three-tiered auditorium), it has handsomely withstood a fierce challenge. The play has apparently lost none of its emotional intimacy and may even have gained some visual strength from Donald Eastman's scenery and Kent Dorsey's sensitive lighting.  

The powerful ensemble of four veteran actors handles the play's sensitive moments with grace, humor, anger, and honesty that have all been acquired through deep personal wounds and staggering private pains.  This is an evening of provocative writing and determined acting that has been  directed with great dramatic acuity to produce a very fine piece of theater.

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