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Drama Set in South Boston Opens Huntington Season

Good People explores class, fate, and escaping the past

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A play about class, fate, and whether people can escape the places that formed them opens the Huntington Theatre Company’s 31st season tonight. It’s also a homecoming for South Boston native David Lindsay-Abaire, whose critically praised Good People is set in the South Boston of his childhood.

The Southie he depicts is not the violent, corrupt neighborhood lorded over by legendary crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger or the mean streets fictionalized in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. It’s a place populated by everyday people struggling to stay afloat economically, some who stay, and some who eventually flee to greener pastures, embodied in the story by upscale Chestnut Hill.

The play, which won a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and was nominated for a Tony Award during its 2011 Broadway run, is poignant, but by all critical accounts, also extremely funny. It’s a gripping play, marked by “moments of explosive laughter as well as gasps and ahas when plot twists are revealed,” says Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois. The work “pulses with this tremendous humanity.” The production is directed by Kate Whoriskey (Ruined and How I Learned to Drive) and features Huntington veterans Johanna Day (God of Carnage) as Margie (a role that won Frances McDormand a Tony award during the Broadway run), Nancy E. Carroll (Present Laughter), and Southie native Karen MacDonald (CFA’72) (All My Sons and Before I Leave You).

“I’m excited to come back to Boston with Good People, especially since it’s very much about, and inspired by, my hometown,” says Lindsay-Abaire, who added the Lindsay to his name on his 1994 marriage to actor Chris Lindsay. “It’s about class in America. It’s about choices and luck, and lack of both.” The son of a fruit seller, Lindsay-Abaire recalls sitting on the back of his father’s truck on Huntington Avenue, across from what is now the BU Theatre, selling bags of plums to BU students. His play Rabbit Hole, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was staged by the Huntington in 2006 and later made into a film starring Nicole Kidman.

Praised by the Boston Globe for mapping the fault lines of social class “with a rare acuity of perception while also packing a substantial emotional wallop,” Good People is the story of Margie Walsh, a sharp-tongued single mother who is trying to make ends meet while caring for her developmentally disabled adult daughter. Facing eviction after losing her job, Margie seeks the help of an old boyfriend, now a well-heeled, married fertility doctor living in Chestnut Hill.

David Lindsay-Abaire, playwright, Good People, Broadway, Huntington Theatre, South Boston

South Boston native David Lindsay-Abaire comes home to open the Huntington’s 31st season with his play Good People.

Lindsay-Abaire grew up on Southie’s West Fifth Street, the birthplace of his mother, who made circuit boards in an electronics factory. Still largely off the radar to BU students, the South Boston he grew up in is historically rich, in parts quite beautiful, and a microcosm of the strife, and eventual healing, triggered by racial desegregation.

Once a pastoral home to Yankee Brahmins, in the 1800s the peninsula reaching into Boston Harbor became a refuge for Irish Catholic immigrants, marginalized by persecution and constituting a ready workforce for the industries that increasingly dominated the waterfront from Fort Point Channel to Castle Island, explains Donald Gillis, a College of Arts & Sciences lecturer in sociology. Gillis (GRS’78’13) ran a multiservice center in the D Street projects from 1977 to 1983, the years after forced busing, and says working class Irish settlers and their descendants cultivated an insular attitude and a wariness of outsiders that still prevails.

After court-ordered desegregation of Boston’s public housing and schools in 1974, and the ensuing unrest, many residents fled to Quincy or the South Shore, says Gillis. The class conflict reflected in Good People is palpable today, he points out, in divisions between the Irish and Polish working class and the more diverse groups snapping up new housing in gentrified Fort Point Channel or looking to Southie after being priced out of the South End.

“More recently the change is driven by real estate,” says Gillis, who teaches a course on Boston’s neighborhoods. “The three-deckers that used to house extended families are being developed into condos, attracting high-end tenants, many gay and lesbian,” he says, and although the neighborhood has become a much more mixed and generally tolerant place, “there is cultural conflict.”

That conflict is at the core of Good People and is what is so gripping about it, according to DuBois. “The play draws a connection between our personal lives and class,” he says.

With scenic design by Alexander Dodge (Present Laughter), the production also features actors Rachael Holmes, Michael Laurence, and Nick Westrate, and lighting design by Matthew Richards. BU alum Marti McIntosh (CFA’03) is the production stage manager, and the stage manager is Kathryn Most.

Good People runs at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, through October 14, 2012. Tickets may be purchased online, by phone at 617-266-0800, or in person at the BU Theatre box office. Patrons 35 and younger may purchase $25 tickets (ID required) for any production, and there is a $5 discount for seniors. Military personnel can purchase tickets for $15, and student rush tickets are also available for $15. Members of the BU community get $10 off (ID required) and are also eligible for a special subscribers discount rate. Call 617-266-0800 for more information. Follow the Huntington Theatre Company on Twitter at @huntington.

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Susan Seligson

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

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