Is it character, circumstance, or the choices we make that determines our lot in life?
This is the conundrum that lies at the heart of Good People, the 2011 play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire.
Director Clinton Walker considers it a “dynamite” play. “It’s one of the finest traditional narrative pieces of theatre that I’ve read in a long time. It’s got a lot of heart and a lot of spunk, and is very, very funny.”
Set in the working-class South Boston district – commonly known as Southie – Good People centres on the dilemma facing Margie Walsh, the single mother of an adult daughter with an intellectual disability.
As the play opens, Margie has just been fired from yet another low-paying job. “So we see a woman in crisis, trying to figure out what the hell to do next.”
Margie decides to seek help from Mike, a former high-school flame who has escaped the strictures of Southie and become a successful doctor. She wangles an invitation to his birthday party, in hopes of meeting someone who can offer her a job.
Things, as they say, do not go well. For one thing, the party has been cancelled, and she finds herself alone with Mike and his African-American wife, Kate, a university professor who grew up in a wealthy Southern family.
“She’s had all the opportunities that Margie has not. Now, she could become disassociated from real life and be blind to what’s actually happening in the world, but I don’t think she is. She’s intelligent; she’s invested.
“So, she challenges the entire social structure of the other characters. She is that presence in Mike and Margie’s relationship that makes both of them accountable for their actions and – more specifically – their inaction.”
Things come to a head when Margie springs the news that it was Mike who fathered her baby.
For his seventh directing stint with the Guild, Walker chose Good People, in large part, for its richly-drawn female characters, including Margie’s bingo-playing cronies, her landlady, Dottie, and her best friend, Jean.
“In my quest for good storytelling, I look for great female characters, because they’re under-written. There’s not enough of them – and certainly women in their 50s. It’s one of the things that I love about this play.”
When Walker first read it, he found himself torn by some of the things the playwright had Margie say, and the decisions he had her make.
“And yet, under the circumstances, we begin to understand why. So, it is in her life, in the obstacles that stand in her way, that we root for her. And it is in her choices, I believe, that we find it questionable, or uncomfortable, to watch.
“Margie is your traditional flawed hero, which makes her so compelling and human. I’ve never met a character that I’ve been so drawn to, and have so much empathy for, that I’m also repelled by. There was that push-pull that drew me to it,” he said.
The fact that Lindsay-Abaire grew up in Southie – a neighbourhood that is often parodied in TV programs such as Saturday Night Live – helps keep the play from becoming too dark.
“It’s a South Boston dynamic, where they bicker and they fight, and they one-up one another all the time. There’s lots of humour to be mined in that. There’s something really accessible and funny about it,” Walker said.
“I guess it could go maudlin, but it steers away from that because everybody is so scrappy. No-one gets sad; people get angry, but they don’t get sad.”
For Walker, the title captures the essential question Lindsay-Abaire wants audiences to ponder.
“In our desire to be good, what the hell does that mean, anyway? Who is a good person? What are the qualities of a good person? And how can that so easily fall apart when we’re desperate to take care of ourselves, and pay our rent, and pay bills?”
For the Guild production, Walker has cast veteran Whitehorse actor Moira Sauer to play Margie, a role that earned Frances McDormand (of Fargo fame) a Tony Award. Adam Macdougall plays Mike, while Amanda Bartle makes her stage debut as Kate.
Sophia Marnik appear as Jean, and Susie Anne Bartsch plays the aptly-named Dottie, who sells her garish hand-made rabbits at the bingo hall for $5 a pop.
Kevin Ray will take on the role of Stevie, the over-reaching dollar-store manager who fired Margie, but who later makes a pivotal decision that dramatically affects the play’s outcome.
Good People runs from November 30 to December 16 at the Guild Hall on 14th Avenue, with curtain time at 8 p.m. Tickets are available online through Brown Paper Tickets, or in person at Whitehorse Motors.