Boston, bingo, bargains and bunnies. David Lindsay-Abaire weaves these seemingly oddball elements together in his award-winning play “Good People.” The playwright, who grew up in Boston’s hardscrabble Southie, explores class divisions in America—a timely topic in an era when news and social media debate issues affecting the haves and have-nots daily.
Lean Ensemble Theater brings this funny, yet poignant play to the island’s HHPS Main Street Theatre from Jan. 25 through Feb. 4.
The story opens with Margie, a single parent from Southie with a disabled adult daughter, scraping by on a minimum-wage paycheck that she’s about to lose. With no job prospects in sight and a landlady threatening eviction, she needs a miracle. When she learns her old boyfriend Mike, now a successful fertility doctor, has returned to Boston, she plots a possible reboot for her life. He’s from Southie and he’s “good people” so he’ll help. But she soon finds that it’s … complicated.
Lean Ensemble’s cast of “Good People” offers glimpses at the frictions behind these two worlds below.
Sarah Newhouse (Margie)
Margie has been living paycheck-to-paycheck. What’s life like for her?
Margie grew up and still lives in the working class neighborhood of Southie. When it was first settled it was mostly Irish and very segregated. It’s a place where there isn’t a whole lot of opportunity. A large part of her day is taken up by her kid’s needs, finding care and programs to help her—that’s kind of like a nonstop job by itself and it jeopardizes her low-paying job in the dollar store.
And when the play opens, she’s about to be fired.
She never got her GED so she can’t get a job that’s better than minimum wage. And then there’s the issue of insurance. There’s no insurance when she’s between jobs. She obviously has to do much of the care for her daughter herself, and she depends on the kindness of her landlady to help her. The program she’s got her daughter in a couple of days a week is probably subsidized and doesn’t offer much flexibility, which affects when she can work in the dollar store. When she loses her job, she goes into a downward spiral.
She latches onto the idea of asking for help from her old boyfriend Mike, a Southie boy who’s made good and now lives in upscale Chestnut Hill.
For Margie, traveling to Chestnut Hill is like a field trip to the other side. It’s very upper class and high end. The houses are huge, beautiful and on big lots. Even though it’s less than 10 miles from Southie, it takes her about an hour to get there by train and bus. She’s seeing her trip there as a springboard to a better life, with hopes of getting a job out of it and helping herself move up a little bit in the world.
Nick Newell (Mike)
Mike left Southie, became a doctor, married well and now lives in tony Chestnut Hill. How does he feel when Margie shows up unexpectedly at his door?
He’s terrifically conflicted. On one hand, he’s happy to see someone from the old neighborhood. But at the same time he didn’t want to live back there. He’s got his upper class house and family in Chestnut Hill. His wife is a college professor and his kid probably goes to a nice private school so they’re not going to really mix with the people he grew up with. As far as he’s concerned, he got out. Yet, he still wants to have that credibility as part of his identity. “Hey, I’m from a tough neighborhood. I’m from Southie.” But he has no desire to live back there. Because Boston was designed a long time ago to segregate races, ethnic groups, and classes into different neighborhoods that do not overlap, he never has to.
At one point, Margie lashes out at him, calling him “Lace-Curtain Irish.”
I learned a long time ago when I was living in Boston that the worst thing you could say about someone was they think they’re better than other people. Being called “lace curtain” is an accusation of a superior and snobby attitude. I used to say that if you ever heard “Ya think you’re better than me?” in a bar in Boston, you should duck because someone is about to throw a punch.
That’s the wonderful thing about the play because it lays bare the interesting relationship America has with the idea of class. We like to think it doesn’t exist or that you can easily move from one to the other. And while Mike’s done that in a very positive way, he’ll never necessarily be Chestnut Hill but he’ll never really be Southie either.
Katherine Nora LeRoy (Kate)
Mike’s wife Kate is an African-American college professor who grew up in Georgetown, an upscale neighborhood in Washington, D.C. When Margie shows up, Kate serves her gourmet cheese and finds herself apologizing for the exotic selection. What is it about meeting Margie that throws her off balance?
Kate uses the cheese that she serves as an icebreaker when Margie shows up. Kate admires the artistry of cheese-making. She likes knowing the names, characteristics, and different regions each cheese comes from while Mike is more like to identify a chunk as “stinky foot cheese.”
As Kate and Margie talk, she quickly realizes there’s a difference in the way she’s been raised. Margie’s idea of cheese is probably Cracker Barrel and maybe even Velveeta.
Kate doesn’t want to make Margie feel like less, but I’m not sure Kate’s had a whole lot of experience with folks on the other side of the tracks. That’s why there’s such a fascination in her wanting to know her husband’s back story and meeting one of his childhood friends.
Matt Mundy (Steve)
Stevie manages the local dollar store where Margie works. What’s it like to be Stevie at the moment he has to let Margie go?
Stevie’s in a position of responsibility. But it’s not power for him; he keeps saying it’s not my choice. He knows that if he or Margie get pushed out of jobs like this—it can easily be the end of the road.
For some people, the dollar store can be a cheap thrill where you pick up the odd items at bargain prices. But for folks like Margie, I suspect it’s a lifeline.
There’s something about the dollar store being very specific to a neighborhood. If you’re in an area where lots of different economic groups come together, the dollar store can have a sheen. I can get this or that and it’s a bargain and it’s fun. But in this Southie neighborhood, for those who shop there the bargain is necessity.
Sheila Kadra (Dottie)
Dottie is Margie’s landlady, and in the play she disparages dollar stores. There seems to be a economic divide. Where does she fit in?
She’s up a level economically. She inherited a three-story house and rents out the other two apartments so she has an income and can make decisions about other people’s lives.
When Margie loses her job, she tells her “you can’t live here for nothing.” Yet at the same time, she wants to be friends. She’s very lonely.
She prides herself as a craftswoman who makes bunnies out of flowerpots, felt, and Styrofoam and sells them at bingo.
Any craft that you do well gives you a sense of satisfaction. Dottie is not manually adept.
She wouldn’t do well with knitting, crocheting or fine needlepoint. But this is something she can and likes to do and takes pride in. And it brings in additional money. This gives her a great bit of satisfaction so she gets insulted when Margie’s friend Jean makes fun of her “bunny farm.”
Jenny Zmarzly (Jean)
Jean, Margie’s friend, works as a waitress and like Margie, she loves bingo. What is it about bingo that attracts them?
My mother-in-law who lived in the Polish section of Cleveland Ohio was an avid bingo player who’d go two and three times a week. And she was a do-it-yourself crafter, so she would take old margarine tubs, paint then shellac them with clear finger nail polish. Then she’d take them to the bingo parlor and sell them just like Dottie. She’d also decorate the bingo dabbers, which you use to mark your bingo cards. By the way, that’s how the church or whoever is holding the bingo game makes money. Because the cards are marked up, players have to keep buying more.
Bingo is their social life. It only costs a couple of dollars to go. My mother-in-law might drop 10 or 15 dollars a night but might come home with $350 or $500. And at bingo you can sit there and talk, talk, talk. Why spend money at a bar or pay to see a movie when you can spend your money on the cards (with a chance to win) and catch up with the latest gossip for a couple of hours?
If you go
- What: Lean Ensemble Theater’s production of “Good People”
- When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 25-27 and Feb. 1-3; 2 p.m. Jan. 28 and Feb. 4
- Where: HHPS Main Street Theatre, 3000 Main St., Hilton Head Island
- Also: Talkbacks following each performance
- Tickets: $40 evening performances; $35 matinees; $15 students/active military. Group and discount rates available.
- Details: www.leanensemble.org, 843-715-6676.