Hoai-Tran Bui, special to WTOP.com
WASHINGTON – The curtain opens on a small, dingy stage made to look like a mundane alleyway. It’s sparse, gritty and realistic, much like the play that’s about to unfold.
Written by Boston native David Lindsay-Abaire, “Good People” is a modern American drama set in South Boston — or “Southie” as Bostonians call it – where residents live in a tight-knit working class community that is both nurturing and a social trap. The play opened on Broadway in 2011 and is showing at the Arena Stage in D.C. until March 10.
“Good People” follows the story of Margaret (Joanna Day), known to her friends as Margie, who loses her job at a dollar store and must look for a new one to pay the rent and support her mentally challenged daughter. Mike (Andrew Long), an old boyfriend of Margie, has escaped from the restraints of his working-class birthplace to become a successful doctor. Margie appeals to the seemingly better-off Mike, but it opens up a can of worms about their past.
In an interview with WTOP Living, actor Andrew Long — a performer at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in D.C. — talks of the prevailing theme of class divides in “Good People” and the difference between “getting out” and “getting lucky.”
WTOP: This play is about class constraints, poverty and the like. What makes these issues so timeless and relevant?
Those themes are very prevalent in British drama, and I think that was something that our playwright David Lindsay-Abaire noticed — he realized that there was a gap between an American aesthetic and a British one as far as that particular topic. And he also wanted to write about Southie, which was where he was from.
The dilemma that the main character Margie is confronted with is losing a job and really needing one. And she goes to someone that she knew when she was a teenager and he “got out,” if you will. I was talking to people after the show, and there were a lot of people from the Boston area who were approaching me. One of them grew up there, and she was saying that those kind of prejudices are still so prevalent from the people that are still in Southie, and people from Southie that got out, so they’re looked down upon, and the people that do get out refuse to look back. It’s still very prejudiced. I think that’s what he was dealing with in the play.
WTOP: How do you think this play speaks to the current economic situation in D.C.?
I think the themes of this play are very prevalent in the D.C. community. It’s a very highly educated community here. There’s a lot of people that are quite ambitious and driven, and some of them may have come from modest means before they got here. And there’s also perhaps a divide between the haves and have-nots. There’s a kind of a trendy community, and there are people that struggle. Or if you don’t struggle, you don’t have to look very far to find someone who does, even your own family or your circle of friends. And also the economic climate of today, the economic downturn has made everyone tighten their budgets.
The way things have gone economically, everybody has to adjust. And this play kind of addresses that and makes you look at a situation of somebody that works at a dollar store and really needs that job and loses it, and they’re kind of the forgotten ones as far as what that trickle-down experience is when things get rough. For someone who lives check to check and loses that, how do they survive?
WTOP: Did you draw on your British theater experience, like your Shakespeare works, to play the character of Mike in the play or did you draw from personal experiences?
Well, it’s always going to be me, isn’t it? (Laughs) The interesting thing about Mike — he has one foot still in Southie and one foot in this kind of Ivy League, Georgetown medical terrain, new lifestyle. And he’s firmly planted in both worlds. And if you’d asked him, he thinks he’s probably permanently in that Ivy League, Georgetown set. The conversations with Margie kind of slowly drag him back to the Southie world.
WTOP: What was it like working with Tony Award winner Johanna Day, who played Margie?
She’s a pro, she’s a real pro. She has this woman in her bones. She has a strong stance of who Margie is, and she’s got the accent down. She was our leader in the process. She’s very soulful and very funny and heartbreaking. She’s a wonderful actress.
WTOP: Your character, Mike, is one of the few characters in the play who is able to escape the limits of being born in a lower class. How was it playing a two-sided character –one who is keeping up the facade of who he really is?
He’s a very complex character. He’s flawed, but I think he believes his truth. You know if I really asked myself the tough questions I think he believes what he believes.
Another big question of the play, a big theme, is the difference between luck getting out, or is it just your own ambitions, your own drive that will enable you to achieve and get out of a modest existence when you’re younger? And Mike is firmly in the camp that it was all his own hard work. And Margie thinks he got lucky.
That was an interesting perspective for the playwright because he said he lucked out, obviously. He said when he was younger, maybe 12, a couple of women saw promise in him, and he was given an athletic scholarship to go to a better school. And he said he wasn’t athletic at all. They just saw promise in him, and eventually he ended up in Julliard learning to be a playwright. He said he never would have gotten there if those two ladies hadn’t seen something in him when he was younger.
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