Ellen McLaughlin returns to the Seattle stage this month as Margaret in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of Good People. Previews began on Friday (March 8) with opening night on Wednesday (March 13) at the Rep's mainstage.
In David Lindsay-Abaire’s play, the Bostonians are anything but proper. With roots sunk deep in the Boston’s Southside, the story follows down-on-her-luck Margaret as she grabs at a chance to improve her economic situation by hooking up with an old boyfriend, now a wealthy and successful doctor.
As McLaughlin reveals in the following interview, the actress and the character share some similarities, but they are also poles apart. When McLaughlin isn’t acting or writing plays based on the classics, she’s teaching at Barnard College.
It's lovely to have you back on stage in Seattle after your performances here at Intiman. Do you have a favorite spot here or memory?
Oh, I'm crazy about Seattle. If only for the coffee, I'd adore it. Uptown Espresso is particularly dear to me. I was there during Bumbershoot when I was doing Homebody/ Kabul at the Intiman and I just recall those bright fall days, the clear skies, the mountains being out.
Seattle is a great theater town and I love the audiences -- avid, unpretentious and smart. I've got a lot of friends and family out here. But I've also spent a lot of time at Hedgebrook, the writer's retreat on Whidbey, so I'll be seeing those good folks on my days off, I hope.
When I look at your career -- successful actress, respected and award-winning playwright, professor at Barnard -- you seem poles apart from Margaret. How do you see yourself in her?
The odd thing is that I've seldom played a part I feel more connection with. I found Margie immediately accessible in an almost uncanny way. It may be that both sides of my family are from the Boston area and I was born, like both my parents and my brother, in Boston. But it's also that she is someone I feel I could have been, with, as the playwright puts it, "one little hiccup" of fate. I, like Margie, am very clear on the role luck has had in my life. Raised by two professors who were in turn raised by professors, that straight-forward, insistence on education gave me a start that is enviable. Being a white, middle class American doesn't hurt either, but the most important thing I had that Margie didn't was people looking out for me. Not just my parents but teachers, friends, mentors -- a host of people are to be thanked for any success I have had, and a whole lot of just plain luck.
Luck or lack of it plays a huge role in this play for Margaret…
There is a particularly brilliant passage in the play when Margie is talking to Mike about the fact that his father was able to protect him at a crucial moment in his adolescence because he was watching his son from the kitchen window. Margie says "...you got lucky. I never had some one watching from a window for me." It's incredibly eloquent about the monumental difference such a presence can have in a life -- it's the difference between his life and hers, which is to say, everything. That's the heart-breaking moment for me in the script, one I deeply admire as a playwright myself.
Your own work as a playwright often incorporates the classics, especially the Greek tragedies, and brings them into modern times, such as Ajax in Iraq. Why go that route as a writer?
One of the reasons I admire David Lindsay-Abaire's work is that he, like the Greeks I've spent so much of my professional life contemplating, is not afraid of taking on the big stuff -- huge, human, moral issues -- what do we owe to those we love? how much of our fate is due to character? how much is choice? how much is out of our hands?
I became frustrated early on as a playwright by a kind of smug smallness in modern drama. There was a lack of what I now understand as courage in the work of others as well as in my own work and I found I was mildly amused or interested by such plays but not deeply engaged or enlightened. I was liberated by my encounter with the Greeks because I was inspired by the sheer size of what they attempt, their unabashed ambition and aspiration. They gave me courage. I go to the theater because I need help dealing with my life, I want to see the greatest questions addressed. I need to see actors grappling with things that matter.
And you see that in Good People?
David's approach is a kind of deft naturalism with absolutely masterful controlled scene construction such that you glimpse the truth just when you need to see it and the events are driven in an utterly believable way by the current of the unspoken, the subtext that roils beneath any good piece of dramatic writing. It's a joy to act it because I don't have to do more than live through the beautifully crafted moment -- the text takes care of me. I don't have to generate any emotional life that doesn't naturally arise in the course of playing the scene. The thing just happens and you are lucky to be inside it when it does. It feels effortless in a weird way.
Among the Greeks, do you have a favorite playwright?
Wow, I've never thought about that. It's like trying to choose between, well, the great tragic Greek playwrights. I was going to say, like trying to choose between former boyfriends but I just thought that sounded strange, however much that's what it actually feels like.
I have the same problem trying to name my favorite authors. But how do the Greek playwrights speak to you today?
I love Aeschylus for his ancientness--that austerity and mystery and grandeur. I love Sophocles for the depth and complexity of his characters. Antigone, Ajax, Oedipus. Will anyone ever write characters with more density, specificity or conflicted natures? These are indelible, unique creations, I think of them as human archetypes at this point -- thorns turning inside all of us, just part of our human nature.
And well, Euripides. I love Ann Carson for saying that she loves him for his "unpleasantness." He just insists that we deal with certain nearly impossible truths, political and psychological. There will never be a more relentless or effective anti-war play than The Trojan Women, except perhaps his utterly peculiar and difficult Helen, both of which I've written versions of. And the Bacchae? Is there a more challenging play about how on earth to cope with the mystery of the divine?
What is next for you, writing or acting?
I have several writing projects at the moment, one that's been in the works for a long time, a music-theater piece I've been writing with the composer, Peter Foley, and several that are brand new, commissions of various kinds. I wish I knew what the next acting project was going to be. In any case, I'm going to be in deep mourning for Margie when we have to close the play. I intend to relish my time with her while I have the chance.