British playwrights love writing about class. American scribes prefer to probe relationships.
So goes the truism and also, to some extent, the reality. Take, for example, David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2006 drama (and later a movie) "Rabbit Hole," a portrait of a marriage wrecked by grief from the loss of a child. Or take his breakout 1999 play "Fuddy Meers," the story of an amnesiac named Claire who tries to negotiate her reality (or her lack thereof) with her husband and teenage son.
Yet this political-convention season has been filled with references to ordinary Americans and the imperiled middle class, long seen as the prime engine of the American dream.
"So I started asking myself, 'where are all the new American plays about class?,'" Lindsay-Abaire said by phone one August morning. "I kept thinking about it. Those plays end up being didactic so often and I'd no interest in getting up on a soapbox and preaching to the converted. And I also wanted to write about the neighborhood."
The neighborhood of primary interest to Lindsay-Abaire was South Boston, the historically white, working-class and mostly Irish neighborhood once known as Dorchester Neck and now called "Southie" by its fiercely proud sons and daughters (you might say that "Southie" is a rough equivalent of the Chicago neighborhood of Bridgeport, where two of the city's former mayors were raised). His posh name notwithstanding, Lindsay-Abaire was a "Southie," born in 1969.
He didn't stick around. A scholarship kid who found his way to "a fancy prep school in the suburbs," he became a theater major at Sarah Lawrence College and then a playwright at the Juilliard School, hardly standard career paths for this particular 'hood. "Good People," which opens Sept. 23 at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company after a successful Broadway stand in 2011, is Lindsay-Abaire's attempt to write about the place from whence he came.
The play focuses on two characters: a single mom and "Southie" stalwart Margie Walsh, whom we see in the first scene getting fired from her minimum-wage job as a dollar store cashier, and her old boyfriend Mike, who went away for an education, married and became a doctor convinced that whatever he achieved, he achieved on his own. Margie confronts him (and his African-American wife) with a different take on who built what for whom.
"I was so scared of the idea," Lindsay-Abaire said, allowing that the character of Mike had some elements of himself. "I have such respect for the people with whom I grew up; I really didn't want to write irresponsibly about them or write something that they themselves would find to be untrue. I never felt judged by the people in my neighborhood. In fact, I felt quite supported. But I became an 'other.' It was the same at my school. Everyone was wealthy and went off on fancy vacations. I went home and watched TV for two weeks. Or so it seemed to an 11-year-old."
Since "Good People" opened on Broadway, where it starred Frances McDormand and Tate Donovan, the discussion, which occupies a good chunk of the second act of this play, as to whether high achievers build their successes on their own has spilled over into the political arena.
All plays require conflict, and "Good People" articulates arguments on both sides: Margie could have done better if she had made better choices; Mike is made to see that without a good dose of help and luck, he'd have achieved nothing. Both characters wrestle with their past failings and present regrets and, the play notes, "Southie" still offers a more supportive community than a dull suburb of professionals. But Lindsay-Abaire, who plans to return to South Boston for his next play, maybe with one or more of these same characters, is open about where he stands.
"People's perspectives on that issue are very different," he said. "It shifts. There is this myth that anyone can accomplish anything if they just work hard enough. But some people are born in a situation that they can't rise above. The play, really, is about luck and obligation."
About the same time as the Steppenwolf production, which is directed by K. Todd Freeman, "Good People" will have its Boston premiere at the Huntington Theatre. Although Lindsay-Abaire says he's thrilled to have his work at Steppenwolf (a theater known for its rich depictions of ordinary Americans), he can surely be forgiven for worrying more about what will happen when the real Southies "show up to watch themselves and one of their success stories. "I hear there will be buses," the playwright said, his nervousness apparent, even over the phone.Copyright © 2015, RedEye