Director Kate Whoriskey was recently in Australia with her 4-year-old son, Rory. “We were on a bus,” Whoriskey recounts, “and he said, ‘Momma, I love to travel. Every place contains a secret.’ That is a beautiful idea.”
The little boy’s beautiful idea resonates in David Lindsay-Abaire’s latest play, “Good People,” which Whoriskey is directing at the Huntington Theatre Company. The place in question is South Boston, and the secrets run deep. The characters in the play’s insular world embrace a collective lie so firmly entrenched that no one dares speak the hard, painful truth. “There is never a moment where people feel good about their emotional life,” Whoriskey says. “They are striving for dignity, and they have an emotional need to be covered and masked.”
The play’s “secret” isn’t one of the usual clichés about Southie. There are no criminals, no drugs, no corpses in the closet. “Good People” is about regular folks just trying to make ends meet. And that is refreshing for Whoriskey, a graduate of the American Repertory Theater’s Institute for Advanced Theater Training who grew up in Acton and remembers going to South Boston every year to watch the St. Patrick’s Day parade with her cousins from the neighborhood. “When I was casting the play, I realized that Boston has its own culture, and if you don’t have a sensitivity to it, it feels false,” she says.
That makes the stakes even higher for the local production, a New England premiere that begins performances Friday and runs through Oct. 14. The play was a critical success last year at the Manhattan Theatre Club, where it won a Tony Award for actress Frances McDormand. But New York audiences are not so attuned to the many parochial references in the play. They may not know the difference between Old Harbor and Columbia Point or have run the Sugar Bowl or eaten a hot dog at Sully’s. And for that reason, playwright Lindsay-Abaire, who grew up in South Boston, is more than a little nervous about the Huntington production. This is the first play the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer has set in his old haunt. “Oh God, I’m trying not to say it’s terrifying, but that is the first thing that comes to mind,’’ he explains. “This is a very Boston story. I’m from Boston. The people in the play are a composite of many people I knew from the neighborhood. To put it in front of those very people and say, ‘Is this right?’ is a scary thing to do.”
The play, by design, is not about the seedy underworld of South Boston so often portrayed on film and in print. Whitey Bulger, after all, now resides at the Plymouth County House of Correction. Lindsay-Abaire can’t resist one nod to the infamous local gangster, but it’s a quick retort and hardly central to the play. “It’s about normal people trying to do the best they can,’’ Lindsay-Abaire, 42, says. “They are not losers or slobs or drug addicts. And as boring as that might sound, it’s exciting to see.”
In a word, the play is about class. It focuses on Margie (pronounced with a hard “g”), a 50-ish single mother who struggles to hold down a job and support her severely disabled adult daughter. She seeks out Mike, an old flame who is now a successful fertility doctor with a swank home in Chestnut Hill. He lives amid manicured lawns and sculpted shrubbery, while she still resides among the boxed-in triple-deckers that defined Southie before the developers came in with their luxury condos and upscale cafes. Memories flow, tempers flare, and long-held confidences are unearthed.
The play asks the timely question that is driving the current political debate in this country: Do people rise above their circumstances by hard work or by sheer luck? “It’s very exciting, because David is writing about the great American themes,” Whoriskey says. “Is America a place where you can actually believe in the idea of rugged individualism, or is it a place where the deck is stacked against people in the lower classes? The play goes back and forth between those two major ideas.”
It does so in a way that is particular to the Boston area. When one character accuses another of becoming “lace-curtain Irish,” the insult stings in a way it wouldn’t in, say, SoHo or Seattle. And that’s why everyone in the cast has Southie on their minds. Johanna Day, who plays the monumental role of Margie, hails from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and her first task was to cultivate a convincing accent (unlike the wandering accents in films like “The Departed”). “I was thinking: Oh, jeez, this better be perfect, or those Southies might knock me in the head,’’ the actress says.
The themes of the play are not unfamiliar to Day, who has long had a distinguished reputation in New York and in regional theaters. She knows what it’s like to worry about balancing the checkbook and making the rent. “I’ve had tough times over the last few years financially, so I can understand that desperation,’’ she says. “Believe me, I work constantly and I have the best career creatively, but there is not a lot of money in theater.”
Day can relate to her character’s determination to stick to the job, hour after hour, whatever the circumstances. When the actress appeared at the Huntington earlier this year in “God of Carnage,” she broke her hand during a fight scene in a matinee performance. She finished the show and was rushed to the emergency room, where she tried to convince the doctors that she was able to go on that evening. This time around, during the rehearsal period for “Good People,” her older brother died. Day has soldiered on, finding comfort in the act of telling other people’s stories.
And to hear her talk about her character, she certainly understands this woman. In several scenes, Margie sits and gabs with two buddies from the ’hood, played by Boston stalwarts Karen MacDonald and Nancy E. Carroll. In conversation, Day reminisces about her own circle of friends — “my besties” — and underscores the importance of bonds formed in childhood. “I can see my friends from high school, and it’s just the same,’’ she says. “Those memories are locked in, and it’s almost like you can smell them. It’s a sensory thing.”
Lindsay-Abaire and the creative team are trying to evoke that kind of visceral feel for the neighborhood he once knew. The goal is to go deeper than the colloquial references to the now-closed Flanagan’s market and Jordan Marsh. The point is to create a sense of place, albeit one ensconced in secrets. But the playwright is adamant that the characters are not based on individual people, but are fictionalized amalgams of folks whose accents he recognizes, whose quirks he admires. He does admit, however, that his mother, Sally, and her best friend saw a bit of themselves onstage when they attended the New York production. “My mother had a bruise on her arm because her best friend kept elbowing her,” he says, noting that the two women were quite familiar with a craft item one character makes and markets for $5 a pop.
His parents moved from South Boston to Brockton 10 years ago — “The minute my father mentioned it, my mother was packing her bags” — but his friends and relatives from the old neighborhood will be in the audience here. “Look, this production is the most important out of all the productions around the country, because it is about Boston,’’ he says. “It’s where I’m from, and the people who know it will be in the seats.” That prospect is both terrifying and liberating for Lindsay-Abaire. In fact, he says, he was so inspired by the experience of bringing “Good People” into the world that he’s working on two more plays about South Boston, which has more secrets waiting to be unveiled.