Historically, Americans have not been terribly comfortable talking about class. But that conversation is taking place this fall, and vigorously, all over Boston-area stages.
The local theater season has been dominated by works that explore the wounds, conflicts, contradictions, and fine distinctions of social class, just as the issue of haves and have-nots has flared into view in the presidential campaign.
In art as in life, timing is everything. Who could have predicted that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney would deliver an unscripted sound bite that would resonate in productions as various as “Marie Antoinette,’’ “Good People,’’ “No Room for Wishing,’’ “Paris Commune,” “The Kite Runner,’’ and “The [Expletive] With the Hat’’?
When a secretly recorded tape surfaced last month of the multimillionaire Romney making dismissive comments to wealthy donors about the alleged legions of Americans “who believe that they are victims’’ and are unwilling to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives,’’ plays like “Good People,’’ a South Boston-based tale of economic desperation, suddenly seemed like a robust populist response by the 99 percent to the one percent.
More broadly, though, these productions feel like part of a vital dialogue about class that the country has been wanting to have ever since the Great Recession shone a light on our ever-widening income inequality.
Now, during a presidential campaign fueled by well-funded super PACs, in a nation that has always liked to think of itself as devoid of class barriers but may now be rethinking that assumption, the stage is a place where the voices of those struggling at the margins can be heard, their faces seen.
A job is a scarce and precious commodity to the characters in several of these plays, none more so than Margaret Walsh of Southie in David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People.” The drama, which demonstrates the playwright’s intimate knowledge of the neighborhood where he grew up, is playing through Oct. 14 at the Huntington Theatre Company.
Margaret, called Margie by her friends, is nobody’s victim, nor is she unwilling to take personal responsibility. But she is certainly up against it.
She is a single mother in her 50s whose need to care for her adult disabled daughter has gotten her fired from her job as a cashier at a Dollar Store, even though, in a desperate bid to remain employed, Margie told her boss he could cut her pay from $9.20 an hour to $8.15 an hour. That kind of specificity is one of the many virtues of “Good People’’: It forces theater audiences — often a well-heeled bunch who can afford to pay hefty ticket prices — to imagine trying to get by on little more than the minimum wage.
Unemployed and facing possible eviction, Margie further swallows her pride and looks up Mike, a former boyfriend from Southie who is now a physician living in Chestnut Hill, hoping he can find her a job. But it is not long before they are locked in a verbal showdown in Mike’s living room. Margaret gives Mike a refresher in Working-Class Economics 101, spelling out the terrifying swiftness with which the dominoes can topple when you are living paycheck to paycheck: Her car was repossessed because she missed a payment. She missed that car payment because she had to spend money on a dentist after she cracked a tooth, then developed an abscess. She cracked the tooth because money got so tight that she passed up dinner one night, but got hungry and ate some candy brittle.
“And you want to tell me about choices?” she says angrily to Mike. “While you sit up here practically breaking your arm patting yourself on the back for all you accomplished. Lucky you. You made some wise choices. But you’re wrong if you think everyone has them.”
A sense of limited options, thin ice, and the perils of making one wrong move also undergirds Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “The [Expletive] With the Hat,” at SpeakEasy Stage Company through Oct. 13.
In the very act of populating “Hat” with characters from a gritty world not often represented onstage, the playwright makes a statement about class. As the play begins, a newly paroled drug dealer named Jackie exultantly informs his addict girlfriend that she “happens to be eyeballing the newest member of this city’s fine-ass working-class workforce.” Jackie adds: “I think I’m hyperventilating! . . . I got a job today!”
Eighteenth-century France is the locale for David Adjmi’s “Marie Antoinette,” which ran at American Repertory Theater through Saturday, but the excesses of present-day Wall Street come inevitably to mind while watching the carefree cavorting and moral obtuseness of the title character.
Adjmi’s Marie is more clueless than cruel, but the playwright suggests they amount to the same thing for France’s 99 percent, to whose unforgiving fury he gives voice. The people over whom Marie rules are invisible to her except as instruments for her own diversion. While playing at being a shepherdess, she explains to a friend that she has had a peasant girl and a farming couple “installed” in her make-believe world, for verisimilitude.
That comes back to haunt her when she is imprisoned by revolutionaries. “While you played peasant decked out in your cute costumes, real peasants were starving,” a hostile guard tells her.
The Civilians theater company’s production of “Paris Commune,” which wrapped up a short stint at ArtsEmerson Sept. 23, also uses an episode from French history to make a contemporary point. “Paris Commune” dramatizes an 1871 rebellion in which citizens overthrew their government and briefly took control of Paris. “Imagine it happening today: the liberation of the poor,” a narrator says. Living conditions are captured in the story of a husband and wife: He is a baker who has to work all through the night, while she is a seamstress who helps make ends meet by working as a prostitute. It’s either that or their children go hungry.
Class is also central to the divergent destinies of Amir and Hassan, two characters in “The Kite Runner,” at New Repertory Theatre through Oct. 7. Amir is the son of a prosperous businessman in Afghanistan; Hassan is Amir’s servant and his best friend. Yet when a neighborhood thug brutalizes Hassan, Amir does not intercede. Later, as conditions deteriorate in Afghanistan, Amir and his father have the financial resources to escape to a new life in America; Hassan does not, and his fate is a grim one.
Anger and despair at the absence of real choices — and a lack of understanding on the part of others who are better off — animates several characters in “No Room for Wishing,’’ Danny Bryck’s solo show about the Occupy Boston movement. A coproduction by Company One and Central Square Theater, it opened at the latter on Sunday .
Its dialogue is drawn from Bryck’s interviews with nearly 200 protesters last year at the Dewey Square encampment, including a homeless woman named Cherie. Her downward spiral accelerated when she committed to taking care of her ailing mother. After her mother died, she was unable to find a job and became homeless. The play reminds us that class divisions can arise even in a movement whose goal is equality.
“I’m trying to be here among Occupy Boston to give voice to the homeless, but I do feel shut out by the people that organize this,’’ Cherie says. “I think their language shuts a lot of the homeless out. . . . You have to help find solutions to their homelessness by finding out their story. And finding out, through their story, what you could do to make their life better.’’
Finding out through their story: Not a bad first step for any playwright — or president — intent on addressing the realities of class in a polarized nation.