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‘Good People': Exploring Class In South Boston

David Lindsay-Abaire‘s love for writing began in his hometown of South Boston.

You may not be familiar with his name, but there’s a good chance you’ve seen his work, from “Fuddy Meers” to “Shrek the Musical” to the Tony-Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Rabbit Hole” (later adapted to the Oscar-nominated film).

Lindsay-Abaire’s work comes full circle in the Boston debut of his Tony-nominated play “Good People,” produced by the Huntington Theatre Company.  It’s set in South Boston and explores the relationship the characters feel toward their Southie roots, with class issues and complications rising to the surface.

WBUR’s Sacha Pfeiffer speaks with Lindsay-Abaire about the play.

Good People” is playing at the Huntington until October 14. Tickets are $15 to $95.

Guest:

  • David Lindsay-Abaire,  Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and a South Boston native

More:

Transcript:

David Lindsay-Abair: I grew up in the lower end on West 5th Street between E and F, spent my whole life there, grew up in the house my mother grew up in. So she spent her whole life there. My mother was a factory worker for most of her life and my father was a fruit peddler for all of my life.

Sacha Pfeiffer: You peddled fruit right across from the Huntington, where the play is now happening, is that right?

That’s right. I spent many summers selling with him, bagging up plums for the kids at Boston University. And I would look across the street at the corner and I thought, “What is over there with this theater of some kind?” — where my play is now performed.

In the play, there’s a lot of talk of making it out of Southie and having help doing so. You’ve credited the Boys and Girls Club of South Boston for giving you hand in the form of a scholarship to Milton Academy, which is where you went to school.

When I was 11 years old, I got a six-year scholarship, and it changed my life in many, many, many ways.

Haven’t you said that typically that scholarship goes to athletes, but you weren’t one?

Right, but I didn’t even know that until two years ago. But it explained an event in my life when I was just at Milton: After gym class, a teacher said to me, “You’re the kid from Southie?” And I said, “Yeah.” “You don’t play hockey? What kid from Southie doesn’t play hockey?” I was thinking, “What a strange thing to say.” This guy was expecting a ringer comin’ in from Southie to play hockey on his team. Instead, he got the poet.

When I saw the show, there was a huge amount of audience reaction — not just laughing but, later in the show, people actually jeering at some of the characters. What do you think has made it have such a visceral, vocal reaction from the crowd?

I didn’t know how funny the play was until it was in front of an audience. I was trying to tell the truth and put people on stage that I knew and loved and cared about — and, most of those people being from Southie, they have a really inappropriate sense of humor.  And so they’re not jokes per se; people are just talking the way that they talk in Southie. So that’s incredibly funny to people, I think. But I think a lot of people also — whether they’re from Boston or not from Boston — see themselves in the play or see neighborhoods they grew up in. And I hope there’s something universal about the play and what’s going on in the play and these people.

As far as the jeering, I didn’t know I had written a pot boiler. There’s a plot there that, if people are listening and are invested, they care about these characters. Some horrible things start to happen in the second act and you can hear the audience gasp or sense that it’s coming and say, “Ohhhh, she’s going to do — oh, she’s doing it!” It’s very exciting to sit in that audience and hear the people incapable of keeping quiet.

What were you trying to do as you created these very different characters? I would think it’s a challenge not to make them caricatures.

I guess all I was trying to do was tell the truth, be honest and create characters that were complicated and not two-dimensional. There are a lot of stories about Southie and other neighborhoods of Boston that sort of fall into stereotypes — you know, the characters are criminals or they’re drug addicts or they’re racist or these things that are just cut outs. I wanted to make none of my characters fell into that.

Also, the play is called “Good People.” It’s about many things, but one of the things that it’s about is what does it mean to be a good person? Are we good people? Are we bad people? All of the characters start off the play thinking of themselves as good people, and then in the course of the play, they have to reassess who they are and what they’ve done and that concept of being a good person is a very malleable one, and it changes. Nobody in the play is a good person; nobody is a bad person. They’re just complicated people like we all are, I hope.

You had wanted to write a play about South Boston for a while, but you were hesitant. Why?

I care about the people of Southie so much. They’re my friends, my neighbors, my relatives. So I wanted to make sure that I was mature enough as a person — and as a writer — to write respectfully of them and write truthfully about the neighborhood so that I didn’t, in fact, write characters that became caricatures or fell into cartoon characters. And they’re complicated people, so I wanted to make sure that I could at least approach the complexity of the people that I knew and grew up with the love that I feel for them.

This play has already been to Broadway. Did it feel different to bring it back home? To show it before a Boston audience?

Oh, completely different! The response in New York was totally different from what it was seeing it in front of the hometown crowd because they knew every place name, every surname, every reference to the city — but, also, just phrases that we had to explain not just to the audience but to some of the cast, like what does it mean to be “lace curtain Irish” and can that phrase, in fact, be used as an epithet? If you’re from Southie and someone says, “Yeah, that guy is lace curtain Irish,” you know it’s not necessarily a good thing, whereas other people in New York were like, “But it’s good! He’s done well for himself. How could he take it negatively?”

The feeling of if you leave Southie, you’ve abandoned the place (in a negative way) — is that a feeling shared among long-timers?

I think there can be resentment. It’s not a resentment that I ever felt personally when I went to Milton. I think so long as you remember your roots and pay respect to the people that you know and love, then you’re set. But if you ever pretend to be anything better than anyone else, then you’re screwed.

Does your family still live in South Boston?

No, they moved out recently.

Have they been able to see the play yet?

Yes, my mother came to see the play when it was on Broadway; they haven’t seen it at the Huntington. Inevitably, there are a lot of things that I have taken from my own life, from my family, and my mother in particular. There’s a lot of stuff.

She went and she saw the play with her best friend, and my fear was she was going to say, “What are you doing? That’s me up there! You put me on stage — how could you do that?” But afterward, I said, “How was it?” She said, “I got bruise in my side.” I said, “What do you mean you have a bruise?” She said, “Well, Alice kept elbowing me every single thing that was like me. She gave me the elbow!” I said, “Well, what did you like about it?” She said, “Well, I liked that it was just like us.” So she didn’t say that was me up there; she said it was just like us. And I love that distinction, that she could recognize herself — and it’s not just my mother, but a lot of audience members walk away with that.

You wrote “Good People” in 2009, but the class issues it gets at are  still very relevant today, especially considering the presidential campaign and some of its themes. How much was luck vs. hard work a factor in person’s individual success? When do we pat ourselves on the back and not realize that it wasn’t just you that got yourself to where you are? That’s not easy to answer.

Nor do I attempt to answer it. It’s my job as a playwright, I think, to just pose the question and to put evidence on both sides of the scale. I have no interest in writing some soap boxy kind of play that preaches to the choir. I hope both sides of the argument are presented evenhandedly, and hopefully the audience walks out talking about it and sits down at dinner and argues about it. That’s what the play does.

I was torn about where my sympathies lay between the two characters. Your sympathies shift back and forth. There were times when I found people near me were jeering the character that, in my mind, I was cheering for. Do you feel comfortable saying whether ultimately you felt more sympathetic with this person who’s still in Southie vs. the person who made it out?

I’m sympathetic to all the characters. That’s what makes my job as a playwright interesting. If I have somebody who’s villainous, there’s no challenge in that and there’s no challenge to the audience. It’s exciting for me to hear you say that people next to you were jeering the person that you were cheering for because it means that there was something complicated going on on stage.

I was less aware of this as I was writing it, but it was exciting for me to be in the audience and hear those allegiances shift — that the person you had been rooting for suddenly does something so horrible you think, “Ah! Oh my god, what has she done? Oh god, I thought she was a good person but now she’s doing this horrible thing!” But then, “Oh, wait — he did something that sort of justifies that horribleness, so maybe he’s horrible. No, no, she’s horrible. Oh! I didn’t have that bit of information.” And it gets you on a really fun ride that makes for good theater, I hope.


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