The gap between us
New Steppenwolf play tackles the nationís economic divide
10/03/2012 10:00 PM
The economic disparities dividing the United States have reached a fever pitch.
As unemployment rates struggle to stabilize and another recession looms, the citizenry are tense. Protestors occupy streets and parks, rallying against social and economic inequality, uneven income distribution, and corporate corruption. Being an election year, politicians weigh in heavily, of course. And when a presidential candidate speaking to a privileged back-room audience seemingly writes off half of the country that he believes wonít vote for him because of their lower economic status, the unrest grows.
The media propels and often ignites this unease.
Partisans on both sides of the aisle break down the conflicts into numerical sloganeering: the lower-income 99 percent rail against the wealthy, upper 1 percent; 47 percent of the populace is accused of sucking off the government teat instead of taking responsibility for their lives.
The statistics highlight the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, but they bury the humanity. Thankfully, a new play running at Steppenwolf Theatre remedies this oversight, stripping the politics, partisanship, and numbers from the current economic situation to reveal the emotional damage being wreaked on both sides.
Perfectly directed by K. Todd Freeman from a masterful script by David Lindsay-Abaire, Good People looks at lives on both ends of the economic spectrum: in South Bostonís impoverished Lower End and the affluent suburb of Chestnut Hill, Mass. The intersections raise important questions about how key life choices, personal responsibility, determination, and plain old luck impact the direction of everyoneís lives regardless of income. They also reveal the destructive power of assumptions, biases, prejudices, and judgments based on class.
When Margaret (Mariann Mayberry) is fired from her job as a cashier at a Lower End dollar store, she must scramble to find another job to support herself and her mentally disabled adult daughter. Over kitchen table conversation with friends Jean (Lusia Strus) and Dottie (Molly Regan), she learns that a high school beau, Mike (Keith Kupferer) has returned to the area. And heís a doctor now.
Encouraged by her friends, Margaret visits Mike at his office in search of work. The meeting between two old friends quickly goes from congenial to confrontational, but leads to Margaret being invited to a dinner party at Mikeís home in tony Chestnut Hill to search for job prospects amongst the guests. Itís a biting night that dredges destructive and painful secrets from the past and tests the consciences of all involved.
The meetings between Margaret and Mike seethe with tension. Itís recognizable, too. Each character is essentially a stand-in for different sides of the current economic crisis. Margaret and Mike arenít caricatures or stereotypes, however. Lindsay-Adaireís script paints them in ambiguous hues. Each character makes gross assumptions about the otherís life, how they arrived at their current state, and why theyíre there. And further mirroring real life, the play doesnít allow the characters to come to a clean understanding of each other at the end. Both Margaret and Mike are good people, though not necessarily in each otherís eyes.
Despite its serious concerns, Good People is not a downtrodden exercise. Itís absolutely hilarious at times. The humor gives the play a needed dose of realism. It evokes the work of British stage and screen director Mike Leigh, who also uses laughs and pin-drop drama to address the concerns of the working class. Even the dual-natured title, Good People, recalls Leighís similarly named Life Is Sweet, High Hopes, and others. And like Leighís best work, Good People shows how friendships and laughter are essential components of coping and healing during lifeís worst patches.