Tag Archives: Frances McDormand

The Tony Awards, 2011

The Tony Awards season confirms what anyone concerned about the status of women in the arts has long come to expect: plays by women are excluded from the nominations once again. When will entertainment power brokers realize that until work by women is produced and recognized, Americans will continue to hear only one side of the stories of our lives?

Women’s unheard stories represent a gold-mine of narrative intrigue and revelation. But of the four plays nominated as the best of Broadway this year, none are written by women and three are almost exclusively about men: Nick Stafford’s War Horse (a gloriously theatrical British import that tells a basic boy-meets-horse, boy-loses-horse, boy-finds-horse tale); Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem(another British import about a character the Variety review calls a “wild man,” a “once noble animal gone to seed”); and Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherf**ker with the Hat, whose macho title can’t even be fully printed in most newspapers.

Only Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People is even about a woman, the salty, working-class Margie from South Boston, played with sharp dignity and empathy by Frances McDormand. (I posted a blog on the production on 4-25-11.)

Margie’s life story as fashioned by Lindsay-Abaire in fact hasn’t been heard regularly on Broadway.How often do we see smart and insightful leading female characters struggling to make ends meet?Margie’s childhood friend Mike escapes the economic constraints of his background through a scholarship and a medical school education. He lands in the luxurious comfort of Chestnut Hill with his African American lawyer wife, far from his poor, racist past.

Margie and Mike’s sharply contrasting stories tell us something about how gender, as well as class and race, influence our aspirations and organize our fates.

But it’s not a coincidence that Margie’s story is delivered by male playwright. Lindsay-Abaire grew up in South Boston; I’m not discounting his insights into a life like Margie’s. But how would her story be told differently if it were written by, for instance, Paula Vogel, another Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose work has never been produced on Broadway?

Maureen Dowd reported this week in the Times that Kathryn Bigelow, the only woman ever to win an Academy Award for directing, is now at work on a film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.Screenwriter Mark Boal, with whom she collaborated on The Hurt Locker—which nabbed Bigelow her Oscar—told Dowd that since their film suddenly has an ending, once wary financiers are approaching them eagerly.

No one I know misses the irony that Bigelow won the Oscar for directing a film exclusively about men and war. Wouldn’t the story of Bin Laden’s capture be fascinating if she and Boal focused their film on Amal Ahmed Abdel-Fatah al-Sada, Bin Laden’s 29-year-old Yemeni wife, who was so determined to be martyred beside her husband that she was shot in the leg attacking the Navy Seals who came to capture him? If Bigelow told Ahmed al-Sada’s story, and Bin Laden’s from his fifth wife’s perspective, that’s a movie I’d be eager to see.

Dowd jokes that someone is probably now pitching Bravo on “The Real Housewives of Abbottabad.”While we think we might know all about the real housewives of New Jersey, let alone the fabricated ones of Wisteria Lane, I, for one, would like to hear much more about Bin Laden’s wives. The stories of women in the Middle East aren’t often told in Hollywood movies, certainly not with Bigelow’s keen eye for dramatic tension and telling detail. What would we learn about Bin Laden if women told his story?

Instead, Bigelow will tell another male-centered military story for Hollywood while Lindsay-Abaire tells a working-class woman’s story on Broadway.

Meanwhile, Julie Taymor, one of the first women to ever win a Tony for Best Director (for The Lion King in 1997), was fired from Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark for reasons that look to me like gender trouble. Taymor’s desire to balance the comic book hero’s righteous quest with a chorus of women and a villainess based on the Arachne myth was considered tangential to the real (read “male”) story of the musical.

I’m not suggesting that only women should tell women’s stories (men have of course told men’s stories for millennia). Lindsay-Abaire’s Margie is a welcome addition to the canon of American drama. And Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is a powerful, empathetic story of men’s valor and arrogance.

But Taymor tried to tell the story of a male superhero against the backdrop of female mythology. And now, she’s out of a job.

Since 2000, of the 48 titles nominated for Best Play, only six have been written by women, and only one has won—God of Carnage, by Yasmina Reza, in 2009. In other words, no American woman playwright has won Best Play since the turn of the 21st century and only 12% of those nominated have been written by women.

What stories might we hear if women playwrights and filmmakers were produced in the same numbers as men? What new things might we learn about both men and women? What possibilities might be opened for how we imagine our lives—past, present, and future—if the boy in War Horsewere a girl who decides to pass as a boy so that she could fight in World War I and find her beloved horse? (History is full of women passing as men to join war efforts.) What if the wild animal gone to seed in Jerusalem were a middle-aged woman instead of the character Mark Rylance plays so well? What if the motherfucker with the hat were a woman?

Those are stories I, for one, would love to hear. They describe a world of possibility in which we learn something about ourselves we don’t already know.

The Feminist Spectator

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Good People

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People offers a compelling, if liberal, view of race, class, and gender relations in contemporary Boston. The Broadway production, directed with subtle clarity by Daniel Sullivan, boasts a top-notch cast, who bring to their roles a kind of fruitful empathy that still doesn’t shy away from delving into the complications of people whose lives might not be entirely blameless or completely praiseworthy. Good People’s essential question addresses in fact what makes a person “good,” and debates whether personal choice or social circumstance determines who can claim that moral and emotional category.

Lindsay-Abaire begins his story in the dollar store where Margaret (who’s called Margie and is played with fearless intelligence by Frances McDormand) is quickly fired by her boss, Stevie (Patrick Carroll), for her chronic lateness. The two argue by the dumpster outside the store’s back door, since even as manager, Stevie has no office in which to conduct the unpleasant, necessary business of letting go his employee. Their personal relationship complicates their exchange— Stevie’s mother was Margie’s childhood friend. But against her excuses and objections, Stevie explains that he’s caught in the maw of corporate practices, supervised himself by a district manager who checks the employee’s punch cards. If Stevie doesn’t fire Margie, he’ll be dismissed himself.

Margie begs Stevie to keep her on, offering to take a pay cut and accusing him of favoring the “Chinese” cashier who started after she did. She knows that corporate management willingly hires new, lower-paid employees over loyalty to workers who’ve been with the store long enough to qualify for benefits and pay increases.

But Margie’s inability to get to work on time is inescapable. She’s the single mother of a severely disabled adult daughter and her childcare options are spotty and unreliable. The daughter is never seen—in fact, a whole host of offstage characters populate Lindsay-Abaire’s play—but her presence is determining for Margie, who feels keenly her responsibility to her only child. When she loses her job, she’s thrown into dire economic straits that affect them both.

Margie lives in South Boston, or “Southie,” the Irish, working-class section of Boston. She’s a scrappy veteran of a hard scrabble neighborhood, someone who’s clear-sighted about her few prospects for class mobility. Her boyfriend—her daughter’s presumptive father—departed long ago, leaving her to fend for herself in a world populated by women. One of the pleasures of Good Peopleand its performances, in fact, is the company of tough, determined, implicitly self-supporting women who provide Margie’s emotional support and foundation. Margie’s sympathetic friend, Jean (Becky Ann Baker), has known her forever; Margie’s landlady, Dottie (Estelle Parsons), is a salty woman who needs Margie’s rent to survive, but who pitches in to babysit for her daughter and clearly likes her renters’ company.

All three women and Stevie are played with broad accents that locate them in a specific milieu. The characters’ costumes (designed by David Zinn) are second-hand store eclectic. Parsons wears Dottie’s heavy aqua eye-shadow and her mismatched clothing with a rather bohemian pride.Margie’s apartment and the bingo hall the women and Stevie frequent are designed (by John Lee Beatty) to emphasize the shabby circumstances in which people without means are forced to create warm community.

Through a series of coincidences, Margie reconnects with Mike (Tate Donavan), one of her few childhood friends to leave the neighborhood and his birth class. Mike is now a doctor, who conducts research on endocrinology. In their awkward reunion in his office, where his white coat, starched shirt, and fancy tie establish his now upper-class bona fides, the two dance around the intimacies of their past, trying without much success to establish common cause in the present.

Margie, in fact, has sought Mike out hoping he’ll employee her. When he demurs, she takes umbrage, and assumes that he’s pushing her away rather than telling her the truth about openings on his staff. Of course, Margie’s skills don’t completely fit a doctor’s office needs, and even though she insists that she can file and do other clerical tasks, her protestations only extend the distance—professional and personal—between the two.

In a surge of guilt, generosity, or sentiment, Mike invites Margie to a party at his house in Chestnut Hill, an address to which he admits sheepishly, given how far it is socially and geographically from his old neighborhood. Although he expects Margie to decline, she boldly agrees to come, nearly taunting Mike with her insistence on reconnecting. When he later calls to tell her his child is sick and the party has been cancelled, Margie assumes he’s creating a ruse to keep her out of his new life. She takes a public bus and travels to Chestnut Hill anyway.

The second act’s confrontation between Mike and Margie, witnessed and complicated by the presence of Mike’s wife, Kate (Renee Elise Goldsberry), is a model of tightly written—if predictable—realist dramaturgy. The scene’s “reveal” is that Mike’s wife is African American, demonstrating another deviation from Mike’s origins, since South Boston has a history of white pride, if not racism. Lindsay-Abaire torques the race-class stereotypes in their relationship, since Kate is an upper-class, Georgetown bred lawyer, whose background couldn’t be more different from her husband’s. Mike’s determination to pass into her world and to erase his own working-class upbringing doesn’t always pan out. The scene opens on a discussion of the couple’s marital tensions and whether they should continue seeing a counselor.

Margie’s abrupt arrival underlines Mike and Kate’s differences even more starkly, as the strong wind of the past that blows into their Chestnut Hill house along with her unexpected visit further roils the surface of an already turbulent relationship. Kate tries to be generous with Mike’s friend, especially after Margie explains that she’s out of work and needs a job. Kate even suggests that Margie might babysit for their child, explaining that their current sitter is a neighborhood girl who doesn’t really need the money—after all, she drives a “Beemer.” (And, rather unfortunately, has an obviously Jewish surname.) The $15/hour the girl makes to watch their baby is far more than Margie collected at the dollar store. But even as Kate tries to be helpful, she only underlines the privilege in which she and Mike operate and her own ignorance about what it means to be poor.

[Spoiler alert.] Margie is torn about whether or not to make Mike responsible for her economic welfare and tests the waters by telling him that her daughter is actually his, the offspring of their brief affair one summer before he left. But when he reacts badly, she back-pedals, pretending she was just trying to manipulate him. Her presence in his home, though, will clearly have a lasting effect on his relationship with Kate. (One of the second act’s nuances is that Margie and Kate form a gender alliance over Mike’s recalcitrant maleness, despite the women’s stark class differences.)

Margie reminds Mike of the time he and some neighborhood boys went out of their way to beat up a black kid who’d intruded on their territory from the other side of town. Margie insists that if Mike’s father, who regularly watched for him out of the window of their home, hadn’t come to break it up, the boy might have been killed. Although she might not leave their moneyed Chestnut Hill living room with her financial future secured, Margie does succeed in reminding Mike and schooling Kate about his less than liberal past.

At the same time, the story she tells about the fight means multiple things. That Mike was racist suggests that he was a product of his childhood environment; that he subsequently married an African American women, though, indicates that people aren’t necessarily stuck where they begin.The three characters joke about whether you can take the “Southie” out of someone, even if you take them out of “Southie.” But Lindsay-Abaire finds that the truth in that debate is idiosyncratic, rather than general. Mike has escaped his past. He might try to white-wash who he was, but he’s changed. Margie, living her adult life in the same neighborhood with the same friends, is still the same.

Given Mike’s opportunities, though, Margie could be different. But she explains that desire isn’t enough to make escape possible. Mike accuses Margie of choosing badly. He blames her for being stuck in Southie and judges her for her inability to make of her own life the economic and professional success he’s made of his. But she reminds him that she didn’t have any choices. No one watched out the window for her; she was left to struggle on her own and wasn’t counseled about scholarships and routes out.

Margie also knows her fate isn’t about her abilities. She reminds Mike that she might be “ignorant” but she’s not “stupid.” Her world might be small but she’s not unintelligent. Her life is circumscribed by economic hardship; one of the character’s most striking speeches is Margie’s litany of where her money goes every month, a sad spiral of the proverbial robbing Peter to pay Paul.She lists the dentist, a towed car, babysitting money, unexpected expenses, and so on, illustrating the domino effect of poverty on non-existent finances.

Margie leaves Mike and Kate’s home on the ethical high ground. In the play’s final scene, Margie and her women friends sit with Stevie at the bingo hall, hoping to win as they make their crosses on their cards out of a desultory kind of habit. But Dottie tells Margie that her month’s rent has been paid, giving her a reprieve as she looks for work. Margie and the women debate whether Kate or Mike sent the money to Dottie, but Stevie finally admits that he paid Margie’s rent with the money he won at bingo. That the rich couple hasn’t reached out to Margie, whether or not her daughter is Mike’s, is their final bit of self-absorbed negligence.

Who, then, are the “good people” here, Lindsay-Abaire makes us wonder. Should Margie risk her daughter’s welfare by not asking her biological father for support? Did she do Mike a favor by abetting his escape from a neighborhood from which so few of their friends could find their way out? Should people who succeed look back and lend a hand to those less lucky? Or do people only take care of their own, repudiating their pasts when they leave?

Good People doesn’t answer any of these questions definitively, but leaves them in the air with enough ambiguity and ambivalence to make the play stick. The expository first act seems to wander, and contains what seems gratuitous racism about the cashier Margie insists is Chinese, though Stevie says she’s not, and some unnecessary gay-baiting over Stevie’s unmarried status. The second act helps the play’s beginning make sense, although I spent the intermission bemused and a bit irritated.

In the end, Lindsay-Abaire crafts a good, conventional realist play. McDormand is terrific as Margie, bringing the character both dignity and compassion (and the suggestion that in the end, she truly is good people), along with a sense of humor that carries much of the playwright’s wry class critique. Donovan provides a strong foil as Mike, unable to get out of his own way when he’s befuddled by his shame at the past Margie represents. Goldsberry brings nuance and agency to Kate, who could become a stick (or stock) figure, the upper-class African American who in less able hands might only serve as a plot device.

Likewise, that Margie’s daughter, who was born prematurely, is severely disabled—although we’re never told exactly how—seems contrived, too. That she cares single-handedly for a disabled child is supposed to make Margie that much more of a martyr. Rather than having a presence of her own, the daughter is only conceived to illustrate Margie’s character.

Parsons, Baker, and Carroll generate the weariness of those who struggle to make ends meet, alongside the decency of people who care about their community and their common survival. They truly are the good people.

In a discussion with the full cast and the Manhattan Theatre Club’s education director after the matinee performance I saw, the actors were articulate about their characters’ situations and the complexities of their gender, race, and class affiliations. McDormand described growing up working class, and how Lindsay-Abaire’s play touched her own experience of being someone who left her birth community and sometimes finds it awkward to return. Donovan told the audience how Lindsay-Abaire, who’s from South Boston, worked with the cast on their accents as well as their characters. While the moderator kept the conversation short, the cast clearly could have talked for much longer, so committed were they to the project of the play.

That, perhaps, is part of realism’s political potential—that by believing in characters as people who could, somewhere, be real, spectators have a chance to learn something they might not have known. And actors willing to open their hearts and their minds, and to bring dignity and intelligence to their work, become conduits for audiences willing to do the same. Not a bad thing at all.

The Feminist Spectator

Good People, Manhattan Theatre Club, Broadway, April 9, 2011.

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