You wouldn’t know it from most hot new American plays, movies and TV series. But in a recent Pew Research Center study, 32 percent of Americans surveyed defined themselves as “lower class.”
Census figures tell us the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans now earn about 16 times more than the poorest 20 percent — nearly twice the 1980 gap.
And upward mobility is a longshot: If you were born in 1970 into a family in the bottom 20 percent of income, you have about a 17 percent chance of rising into the next 20th percentile.
The numbers are stark and bloodless. But behind them are real-life tragicomic sagas of decent folks struggling and striving, some prospering while others scrape by.
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Nitty-gritty slices of life on the lower rungs may sound grim, and not the kind of escapist fare America has preferred lately — from futurist fantasies to unreal reality shows to terrorist thrillers. But David Lindsay-Abaire’s funny and heartbreaking winner “Good People,” opening this week at Seattle Repertory Theatre, is a notable exception.
The Tony Award-nominated Broadway play will be presented at 17 regional theaters nationwide this season. It hits Seattle in a well-reviewed Rep coproduction with George Street Playhouse.
Directed by George Street’s David Saint (a former Rep staffer), the show features Ellen McLaughlin as Margaret, a “mouthie from Southie” — working-class South Boston.
Brash and feisty, proud and luckless, Margaret toils in a dollar store, a job that barely keeps her and a disabled daughter afloat. When she’s laid off, she takes desperate measures to survive.
“I think most Americans buy into the myth that there’s no class system here. If we all just work hard enough, pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, anyone can accomplish anything,” says Lindsay-Abaire. “I know that isn’t true, for Margaret and most people.”
A 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner for “Rabbit Hole” (about a middle-class couple dealing with the loss of a child), Lindsay-Abaire says “Good People” is in part a response to the complaint, “Why aren’t more Americans writing about class? Why do Brits do it and we don’t?”
“I wanted to write about my own background in South Boston. A lot of movies set there are about crime, the Irish mob, racism. That was not part of the neighborhood I knew. I knew hardworking Joes who woke up every morning, trying to make ends meet and feed their kids.”
He also knew firsthand the good fortune needed for his character Mike (John Bolger) to leave Southie and become a wealthy doctor — and the man Margaret reluctantly turns to for help.
Like Mike, Lindsay-Abaire won a scholarship to a private prep school. “I wasn’t smarter than the other boys up for it, just luckier. At 11, I communed with rich kids and became aware of class differences. It shaped who I am as a person.”
He adds, “I know the guilt about rising out of your class, leaving others behind. And I know the part luck plays in it.”
Popular plays and films rooted in the everyday dilemmas of working-poor Americans have been rare in recent hard times, but were more plentiful in the Great Depression. In the 1930s, playwrights like Clifford Odets mined their own youths and escapes from the New York slums for such hits as “Golden Boy,” the Odets classic about a prize fighter who boxes his way to riches — with guilt, and regrets. (A 2012 Broadway revival, helmed by ex-Intiman Theatre head Bartlett Sher hit a nerve, and won raves.)
More recently, the late August Wilson, a longtime Seattleite, explored the struggles of working-class 20th-century African Americans in his 10-play drama cycle. In Wilson’s brand of poetic realism, characters talk bluntly about the dollars-and-cents of living, the exact costs of food, rent, refrigerators.
“Good People” also gets down to cold, hard cash. Says the author, “When Margaret gets fired, she tells her boss, ‘I knew when I went over nine dollars (an hour) you were gonna start looking for an excuse to get rid of me.’ She bargains with him — ‘make it $8.50.’ The 50-cent difference means little to most of us, but it’s huge for her. It’s the difference between feeding her daughter or not, making the rent or not.”
Along with the ongoing debate over raising the minimum wage, “Good People” also reflects a growing trend: the sinking into poverty of households headed by single women. “Just thinking about Margaret and her struggle made me think of my mother, and the women who surrounded her, many of them left to raise kids alone. My father was very present, but I still think of my mother as the central figure who kept our family altogether.”
And though written before the 2012 political campaign, the play links into a national debate over the nature of economic success. Is success, as Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s slogan “You built that” implied, a matter of individual effort alone? Does poverty imply laziness, moral failing?
“One of the play’s central ideas is, ‘You did not build that,’ ” emphasizes Lindsay-Abaire. “You’re also successful because you’re very lucky — you got a scholarship, or other big breaks.”
An irony of the playwright’s own success is that someone in Margaret’s income bracket “could never afford” Broadway tickets to “Good People.” Lindsay-Abaire says he’s worked with regional theaters to make their productions of the play more accessible to lower-income patrons.
He wants to see more Margarets in the seats, but also more characters like her on American stages. “These people, my people, represent a huge portion of the total population,” he declares. “ I feel like, oh right! There are all these stories I want to tell about them.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org