In the opening scene of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, the main character, Margie (Kelly McAndrew), gets fired from her $9.40/hour job as a cashier at the Dollar Store. In a normal life and a normal world, such an event would be a minor bump in the road; but this isn’t a normal world, it’s 2011, jobs are virtually non-existent, and Margie not only lives paycheck to paycheck but also supports a mentally disabled adult daughter. Desperate, Margie turns to see if she might find employment with an old boyfriend, Mike (David Whalen), who scholarshiped his way out of their working-class South Boston neighborhood and is now a successful (and wealthy) doctor. What ensues is a telling, and subtle, exposure of the underexamined state of class (and class consciousness) in contemporary America.
On the evidence to date, the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s “Made in America” season might be better titled “Making it in America” – or, more precisely – “What does it take to ‘Make it in America’?” Born Yesterday, the first play in the season, spun comedy out of the role of money and class in politics and legislation; Good People follows up with an astute exploration of the rhetoric used to explain the gulf between the barely-making-it and the “made it.” Mike has convinced himself that his success is due to his hard work, supplemented by intelligence and “good choices.” Margie sees things differently: from her perspective, there’s a great deal of luck and good fortune in Mike’s past, a major portion of which she provided for him by hiding the fact that he fathered her child. What comes under scrutiny here is not only the extent to which winners “earn” their success and losers “deserve” their misery, but also the language the current political class (on both sides of the aisle) likes to mobilize to explain class difference. Take, for example, “choice” and “personal responsibility.” The play’s portrayal of two vastly different outcomes from the same “choice” (to engage in unprotected premarital sex) complicates any easy moral judgment regarding a given person’s ability to “choose” a successful path, as we see that Mike’s “choice” to leave South Boston was largely determined by Margie’s “choice” not to reveal to him the consequences of their mutual “choice.” Granted, Lindsay-Abaire stacks the deck a bit here, but it allows us to see with crystal clarity how much contingency is built into this system we all so desperately need to see as rational in order to continue to submit ourselves to it. It’s a point beautifully delivered home in a monologue in which Margie explains how a bite of peanut brittle broke a tooth which led to an abscess that required giving up her car to pay the dentist – all of which leads to her losing one low-wage job after another because she no longer has dependable transportation to get her to work on time. I was reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich’s ethnographic study of the working poor in Nickel and Dimed, which likewise highlights the razor-thin margins of error low-wage laborers must skirt.
The Pittsburgh Public’s fine, sensitive production of Good People brings this American social divide sympathetically to life, adroitly managing the tricky task of keeping our sympathies with Margie without demonizing Mike and his poised and gracious wife, Kate (January LaVoy). As much as we feel for Margie’s predicament, we can also readily identify with the successful couple’s reluctance to rock the comfortable boat on which they’ve managed to secure coveted seats. Kelly McAndrew is tough and likable as Margie: the character doesn’t want our pity, and McAndrew honors that by keeping her performance dry and unsentimental. Paul Terzenbach, Glynis Bell, and Helen Coxe bring warmth and three-dimensionality to Margie’s “Southie” community of Stevie (her boss), Dottie (her landlady) and Jean (her friend), and Whalen and Lavoy help us see a complex range of emotions and responses in their encounter with Margie’s state of crisis. There aren’t a lot of fireworks and high drama in this production (although on opening night, Pittsburgh’s “Light-Up Night,” there were plenty of both outside the theater), but there is a great deal of wry and insightful humor that keeps the play’s tone light and hopeful, and the production surefootedly navigates the shifts between comedy and pathos.
Above all, Good People provides those of us who can afford to sit comfortably in theater seats an intimate and sympathetic portrait of the kind of admirable American for whom a personal fiscal cliff might be just a bite of candy away: that is to say — given the “wrong” circumstances — any one of us.