Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Are you 'Good People'?

Cheese as a class issue: Margie (Suzy Regan) gets a lesson from her ex Mike (Alexy Leydenfrost) and his wife Kate (Qamara Black) in the Performance Network Theatre's smart production

The question of belonging played on my mind last Friday night as I went into Performance Network Theatre's excellent production of the Tony-award-nominated "Good People," David Lindsay-Abaire's meditation on class through the lens of the Southie neighborhood in Boston. The play is showing every Thursday through Sunday through the end of March.

I had been listening to the book-on-tape version of Jane Mayer's The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, a rigorously researched account of the legal and personal struggles of the main players in our government's response to the September 11 tragedy. The author makes a passing reference to the dilemma faced by the doctors who facilitated the torture of enemy combatants, the classical tension between loyalty to some greater authority--in this case, their obligation to "first, do no harm"--and loyalty to one's state. Am I doctor, or am I an American? (The premise they have already accepted, of course, is that the torture of enemy combatants is what's best for America, a dubious maxim more appropriately tackled elsewhere.) They are backwards Antigones, who leave their brothers' bodies to the vultures rather than violate their obligation to country.

It was hard not to watch "Good People" through this lens of belonging and community, where the hard-knock values of South Boston chafe against the social mores of the upper crust.

The main character Margie (hard G), expertly played by Suzy Regan right down to the accent, is the single mother of an adult, mentally disabled daughter Joyce. Margie is the closest thing you get to a modern-day saint: her suffering long, her plight noble, her clothes ill-fitting, her understanding boundless. For all her "pardon my French"-ing and casual racism, Margie is nice; if you ask her best friend Jean (MaryJo Cuppone in the role she was born to play, a mouthy Southie girl in a tight Red Sox t-shirt with a crucifix pressed into her cleavage), Margie is too nice.

Which is all good and fine, unless you want to tell a compelling story. Luckily, Margie's ex-flame Mike--a doctor who "made it out" of Southie and started a "lace curtain" family with Kate, a bourgie black woman from Georgetown--comes along to throw some moral shades of grey into the plot.

The play's dogged question--are you good people?--is at first the weapon of the ever-nice Margie, who has come to Mike for a job. She ribs him with his privilege: his fancy office, the house in the suburbs, the "push present" for his beautiful young wife on their mantelpiece. (Qamara"Peaches" Black nails it as the too-charming lit professor Kate fluttering about the wine and cheese and hinting absent-mindedly at their less-than-blissful marriage.) Is Mike good people? Margie slowly, sadly, finds that he might not be.

However, her own moral high ground--the virtue of poverty, of struggle, of being stuck by forces beyond her control--starts to slip as the audience realizes Margie herself may not quite be "good people" either.

*Spoiler alert*

Turns out Mike is, indeed, the father of Margie's daughter, as the Maury Povich jokes have suggested. What Margie sees as the ultimate testament to her niceness, her categorization as "good people"--that she did not "trap" Mike into fatherhood and family, that she allowed him to leave Southie behind for better things--horrifies Kate. If Mike is Joyce's father, Kate argues in the play's climax, then Margie is a bad mother, allowing her daughter to suffer needlessly when Mike could have helped care for her. She could have placed Joyce's needs over the moral code of South Boston, where it was noble set free a young man with potential from the obligations of parenthood. Margie had had a choice, after all; in Kate's eyes, she chose her neighborhood and her pride over her daughter.

*End spoiler alert*

It was uncomfortable, certainly, to watch the worldviews clashing among these three characters; it was less comfortable still to identify so closely with Kate, whose economic background most closely mirrors my own. Are we all just twisted creatures of circumstance, trapped in by whatever misguided good our narrow worlds have taught us? Even the set design, opening and closing ingeniously to reveal each new scene, boxes the play into separate enclaves under the Boston skyline. The impasse that Margie, Kate, and Mike reach is almost unbearable: Kate is just as much a creature of places like Chestnut Hill as Margie is of Southie, with Mike flailing about somewhere between, losing at everything. Perhaps the only thing worse than being trapped somewhere is not being trapped anywhere.

Jean (MaryJo Cuppone) antagonizes landlady Dottie (Ruth Crawford), who idly considers Margie's eviction

The brilliance of this play--and the Performance Network's execution of it--is that, despite its bleak premise, it's actually funny. The dialogue is quick, the characters are smart, and the actors are in on the joke. Life is miserable in Southie as in Chestnut Hill, but that's no reason to lose your sense of humor.

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