‘It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.’ – George Carlin (1937-2008)
At its core, the American Dream is the belief that hard work and dedication lead to money, success and upward social mobility. Yet economic mobility in America is currently lower than most European countries, as well as Canada and Australia. Instead of feeling reassured that their children will enjoy a better life, the large majority of Americans believe the next generation will have it worse. The American Dream is in crisis, and has been for a number of years: the economy continues to struggle, the unemployment rate remains high, incomes are stagnating while the cost of education is rising. The land of opportunity has become one of bleak pessimism.
In Good People, David Lindsay-Abaire movingly, eloquently and humorously explores the erosion – and the myth – of the American Dream. Set in his childhood home of South Boston (‘Southie’), one of America’s oldest neighbourhoods with strong working-class Irish roots, Good People also offers intelligent insight into current American attitudes towards race, roots, identity, success, goodness and yes, even class.
Margie Walsh is a fifty-year-old single mother with an adult daughter who suffers from learning difficulties. When we first meet Margie she’s in the process of being fired from her checkout job at budget store Family Dollar because caring for Joyce means she’s often late for work. Pride prevents Margie from applying for a job at the Gillette plant, so she and her friends Jeanie (the ‘mouthie from Southie’) and Dottie (her eccentric landlady who makes peculiar toy rabbits) decide that she should look up her high school boyfriend, Mike, now a successful doctor, and see if he can help her find a job.
In the two scenes in which Mike and Margie appear together – the first in Mike’s office and the second at his home in the presence of his wife, Kate – Lindsay-Abaire forces us to acknowledge the all-important role of luck and chance in our lives. At one point, Mike accuses Margie of making ‘bad choices’, and in doing so he draws a direct link between them and her current situation. But how far are people to blame for their choices? Even among the hard-working poor there are those who are luckier than others: both Margie and Mike worked hard; both were, at one time or another, caught up with the wrong crowd. Yet look where they are now. Interestingly, Margie reminds Mike of one of the differences between them: he had a father who worked while she ‘never had anybody watching from a window’. Thus, Lindsay-Abaire adds to the discussion of social mobility that it’s not just where you’re born that affects it, but also your family environment.
One of the many strengths of Good People is that we’re never really sure where our sympathies should lie. Is Mike’s success really down to hard graft? Is Margie unlucky? We want to root for Margie as, confronted with Mike’s affluence, his respectability, his newfound position in society, she realises just how much she’s missed out on: she’s never eaten salmon; she doesn’t know ‘how offices work’; Mike is the only doctor she knows ‘in real life’; she can only afford to buy dresses from Goodwill. Yet the sight of the huge gulf between them causes her bitterness and vindictiveness to surface, and she levels some accusations against him that she knows will wreak havoc in his already unstable marriage.
Similarly, we feel we should dislike Mike as he’s become ‘lace curtains’ (Southie speak for thinking he’s better than those he grew up with); wants Margie to mythologise his past for the benefit of his wife; and refuses to acknowledge the fact that Margie’s disabled daughter might actually be his. Yet it’s hard to begrudge him his success and his enjoyment of the lifestyle it has bought him. As Mike and Margie trade blows, our allegiance constantly shifts as we realise that everyone is simply trying to do the best they can.
It’s not just Margie and Mike who force us to confront what the notion of ‘good people’ means: on the one hand, Margie’s friends encourage her to ‘pull a Jerry Springer on [Mike’s] ass’ (i.e. cruelly trick him into thinking Joyce is his daughter so he’ll have to pay maintenance), while on the other Jeanie and Dottie are the only ones who understand her, who have grown up with her, with whom she shares her fears and her secrets; the sense of shared experience is palpable. Moreover, Stevie, the young manager who fired Margie from Family Dollar, in the end turns out to be something of a knight in shining armour. Lindsay-Abaire never allows the audience to feel comfortable, and has created a complex cast of characters, full of contradictions and surprises.
That Lindsay-Abaire is himself from South Boston is apparent, for there’s never a false note in the dialogue. By turns funny (‘How’s the wine?’ asks Mike at one point, only to receive a swift ‘How the fuck should I know?’ from Margie in response), heartbreaking, and astute (‘You don’t call the rest uncomfortable,’ says Margie in response to Mike describing himself as ‘comfortable’ rather than wealthy), Lindsay-Abaire paints a rich picture of the people of Southie, affording us a visceral feel of the neighbourhood and its inhabitants, and creating a real sense of place.
Indeed, one of the busiest places in Margie’s neighbourhood is the local bingo hall, and it looms large in the play, reinforcing Lindsay-Abaire’s thesis about the role of luck and fate in human life and sharpening the contrast between the haves and the have-nots: even one small win there would transform Margie’s life for a little while, and it’s where she and her girlfriends go to escape the drudgery of their daily existence. Mike and his wife, by comparison, wind down by throwing parties with caterers and elaborate cheese boards.
While Good People is a very localised play, set in a specific area and with the vernacular to accompany it, it is also highly topical and relevant to many of the debates currently being discussed in the UK. Last year much was written about alleged ‘benefit scroungers’, those perceived to be shirking their social responsibilities, and the impact of the Coalition’s welfare reforms. Margie is blamed, accused and looked down on for being poor, but Good People encourages us to consider the interplay of many different factors that might put someone in that position, and that, however hard they work, they will simply never be able to escape their circumstances. Or perhaps, as Margie says, it all comes down to bad luck and a piece of candy brittle.
The writing in Good People is so rich and offers so much for thought and discussion that I haven’t made many specific comments about this production. Imelda Staunton, however, is worthy of mention for she is phenomenal as Margie, shifting from wounded pride to aching vulnerability to quick-fire wit to ugly desperation, and yet always managing – just – to ensure that she remains likeable. Filled with energy and determination one moment and crushingly deflated the next, Staunton is best at portraying the moments when Margie’s defences go up, or come crashing down. The rest of the cast is wonderful, too, but this is emphatically Staunton’s show.