People are pretty much the same everywhere, but storytellers understand that audiences love rediscovering this reality through a peep into somebody else’s life.
That’s where plays like David Lindsay-Abaire’s play Good People – presently at the Old Globe Theatre’s White Theatre through Oct. 28 – come from.
In a program note, the Boston author describes his own split-personality childhood – a pauper from the projects daily bussed on scholarship to a ritzy prep school – as his inspiration for these characters, a collection more of survivors than winners.
Margaret Walsh, a worn single mom juggling her menial job and the needs of her autistic adult daughter, is late for work once too often. Her young boss, whose late mother was Margaret’s friend, is required to fire her, thus setting off a mudslide of woes which can only be stopped by finding another job. Good luck with that in a neighborhood where, apparently, everybody is out of work, in prison or freezing, homeless and unnoticed, on the street.
The weekly bingo game seems to be the main community rally point and it’s here that Margaret hears that the only real success story from her high school, Dr. Mike Dillon, has moved back to town. Urged on by her friends, Margaret tracks him down to see if he can help with the job hunt. When he doesn’t return her calls, she crashes his office.
The meeting is tense at best, and sometimes excruciating. Much has changed in a couple of decades and, though there’s a hint of old-time closeness, Mike clearly wants as little as possible to do with the old neighborhood. But Margaret is desperate and, when he drops the word that the wife is throwing him a birthday party Saturday night, she badgers him into inviting her so she can shop for work.
It sounds like a bad idea and it gets worse. The party is cancelled when Mike’s daughter falls ill but Margaret just figures he’s trying to wiggle loose, so, again urged by the bingo friends, she goes anyway.
The confrontation of Margaret, Mike and Kate goes better than one might expect but ultimately worse than one would hope. In the gracious Chestnut Hill living room, everybody’s trying hard as they stumble in cruel currents. The Dillons are in therapy over something he did. Margaret doesn’t know the difference between white and red wine. Kate wants to hear more about the old days. Defenses crumble, the sewer line clears and old despairs bubble forth, ultimately to nobody’s benefit.
Margaret and her circle have an unfortunate conversational habit of backing away when things get intense, when the truth is told, perhaps by accident. “I was just kidding you,” is the hurried retreat, leaving the victim frustrated and the matter unresolved. That may help get through the day in South Boston but it plays hell with the system in Chestnut Hill. If somebody has been wronged, acted nobly or surrendered, it’s nearly impossible to tell in the realm of “just kidding.”
Back at bingo, little has changed. But ways are found to move on, to pay another month’s rent, even to preserve a scrap of dignity. The only real solution is to say, in Samuel Beckett’s words: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
Eva Kaminsky is heart-breaking as Margaret, a Mother Courage without the headlines. In Paul Mullins’ tender yet stern production, she balances the helpless crudities of environment and the spiritual clarity that illuminate, under stress, what she might have been. But she also suggests depths that probably never will be explored and even manages to project some of that onto the sketched characters around her, Carol Halstead as another, less encumbered survivor; James McMenamin as a nice kid scared of what he probably will become; and Robin Pearson Rose as a poisonous old harridan with little room in her shriveled soul for compassion.
R. Ward Duffy plays Mike with a subtlety that only activates as the details of his character’s background emerge. There is a stiffness and wariness that he allows to settle into him most effectively. And Nedra McClyde, tall, slim, elegant and intense, handles gracefully the revelations which just keep slapping her into what she reads as clarification.
(An example of the “just kidding” technique at work: Pressed to clarify some author reference, Kate explains off-handedly that she teaches literature at Boston College. “Not Harvard?” says Margaret, brightly. “Just kidding.” A product of an intensely advantaged upbringing as we know, Kate is shaken. “I thought I heard my mother there for a moment.”)
Though Chestnut Hill is obviously more comfortable, in Michael Schweikardt’s minimal suggestion of a set, than the world of the “Southies,” I’m not clear on which would offer more likelihood of survival, not to mention contentment. And that may be the playwright’s point.
Just kidding. I’ll take my chances with the doctor’s life anytime.
Good People, by David Lindsay-Abaire, will continue at the Old Globe Theatre White Theatre at 7 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 28, 2012.