Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Soon, after lights come up (on Nina Ball's beautifully ravaged yet lovely set), we meet Bill (Richard Pallaziol) and Dinah (Susan Gundunas), sitting quietly at home in Ohio. Bill and Dinah, we will discover, are mourning their own loss, that of their only daughter. Dinah, ever the resilient, upbeat Midwesterner suggests a trip to Oakland to visit her cousin Jeannette (Elly Lichtenstein), who is Neil's wife. The house they lost was one of hundreds consumed by the Tunnel Fire that ravaged the Oakland hills in 1991, and the couple are living on the charred property in a yurt.
Fire is not the only tragedy that has befallen the couple, for Neil has also been scorched by months of chemotherapy, which was unsuccessful. "I'm growing some prizewinning tumors in here," he says at one point. "I think I'll enter them in the State Fair!" Pelican is physically perfect in the role. He is rail thin and carries himself with a halting sensitivity that only heightens the emaciation; we feel his pain with every tender step he takes.
When Bill and Dinah show up in Oakland, it doesn't take long for the tension between their two lifestyles to bubble to the surface. Bill and Dinah are born-again "Christers" (in Jeannette's terminology) and Jeannette and Neil have a more new age, spiritual but not religious worldview. When Bill references a guilty pleasure, Jeannette asks, "Why would pleasure make you feel guilty?" Bill has to leave the scene when Neil partakes in some medical cannabis, and is easilyand understandablyprovoked when he feels any comparison is drawn between his tragedy and that of the California cousins.
The cast is wonderful, especially Elly Lichtenstein. She exhibits the same maternal warmth that was so wonderful in her performance as Golde in Cinnabar's outstanding Fiddler on the Roof, but adds a wonderfully tart soupçon of self-absorption that is so subtle it almost slips past unnoticed. Pallaziol is slow to warm in the role of Bill. He's disconnected and distant. This makes a certain amount of sense, given the stoic and emotion-denying nature of the character, but in the first act we don't get a sense of the anger and rage we know must be simmering inside a father whose little girl was taken from him. Once he can express that rage in act two, his performance feels much more genuine and less actor-ly. As Dinah, Susan Gundunas delivers a solid, tender performance that feels truly honest and heartfelt. Both her character's warmth and disappointment come shining through.
While the story is chockablock with tragic elements (a conflagration, cancer, a dead child and a missing cat?), by the time the curtain falls, playwright Anderson has somehow found a way to bring her characters to a place of peace and acceptance that helps uplift those of us in the audienceand perhaps make our more workaday tragedies feel a little more manageable.
The Quality of Life runs through October 30, 2016, at the Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd North, Petaluma. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $25 general ($30 at the door), $15 ($20 at the door) for those 21 and under. Tickets and additional information are available at www.cinnabartheater.org or by calling 707-763-8920.