Good People (written by David Lindsay-Abaire) is provocative in the best sense, I think. Though it may leave us with more questions than answers, it is profoundly moving, and frankly, avidly, vividly explores questions of class struggle, destitution, charity and character. If pulling yourself up by your bootstraps demonstrates or builds character, if succeeding in spite of adversity is a testimonial to a triumph of the will, does accepting charity negate it? None of us would have called Job a whiner, yet the Conservatives (who proudly proclaim their Christian virtue) are so quick to denounce welfare as it must (supposedly) rob the recipient of self-respect. Yet these same people fight the self-esteem a higher minimum wage would encourage. What makes genuinely charitable impulses possible?
American culture has a curious, really, sad duplicity, when it comes to questions of self-esteem and self-respect. Self-respect is key to getting on and thriving in the world, yet we seem unclear on the dividing line between believing in oneself and egotism. We seem determined to assume that success must come at the expense of others. Lindsay-Abaire creates a paradigm for this split between the striving and the flourishing in Margaret and Mike. Margaret has just lost her job at a store like Dollar Tree, her grown daughter, Joycie, is mentally impaired and requires vigilant supervision, LIFE keeps throwing challenges her way, but she isn’t completely beaten down. Mike and Margaret used to date as teenagers, back when he still lived in the tough, blue-collar neighborhood of South Boston, Massachusetts. The time when Margaret and Mike were lovers, followed by Mike’s departure to college, lies at the crux of Good People.
Margaret’s friend Jean suggests she renew ties with Mike, seeing as he’s now a prestigious fertility doctor. Margaret can use their connection to perhaps network a new job. He invites her to his birthday party (after some none too subtle hints). When he legitimately cancels the event, she shows up anyway, convinced she’s been snubbed. It’s important to note here, I think, that we’re as surprised as she is, when we discover she’s wrong. Mike’s African-American wife, Kate, insists that she stay, attempting to heal the embarrassment she feels for assuming Margaret is part of the help. Margaret just wants to leave, embarrassed for reasons of her own. Kate is a genuinely compassionate, and down to earth lady. Classy without seeking refuge in arrogance. She pours wine for Margaret, and when she temporarily departs, Mike asks Margaret how she likes the wine. “How should I know?” she asks, in a quip that brought the house down. Perhaps with wealth comes an appreciation for finer things?
Good People is a strange mix of hilarity and pathos. Irony to get past the disappointments that threaten to swallow us alive. Good People turns on Margaret’s opportunity to use Joycie’s conception for financial help, and what this says about her character. There’s much to suggest Mike might be Joycie’s dad, but Lindsay-Abaire seems less concerned with this, than Margaret’s decision. We might perceive her as conniving or manipulative, but it’s not like she’s aching to live some glamorous existence. She just wants the world (or fate, or Mike, or God) to cut her a break. But Good People, ultimately, does seem to be about Margaret salvaging her dignity. When we’re living in a time, though, when CEO’s are willing to ruin thousands of lives, motivated by cynicism and naked greed, you have to wonder when dignity stops being the point. Good People is engaging, powerful, memorable, remarkable.
Good People plays at WaterTower Theatre in Addison, from June 6th through 29th, 2014. 15650 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001. 972-450-6232. www.watertowertheatre.org