Jackie Maxwell, artistic director of Canada’s Shaw Festival, was sitting in the Toronto Airport waiting to board a flight for Ireland to visit her mother. “I almost missed my plane because I was reading [David Lindsay-Abaire’s play, Good People],” she said. Molly Smith, the artistic director for Arena Stage, had given Jackie a copy of the play, hoping she would agree to direct it in Washington. “I texted Molly and said, `It’s fantastic,’” Jackie said. “Molly was able to schedule it and I was thrilled.”
Good People, set in Boston’s Southie neighborhood, centers on Margie Walsh, who loses her job as a cashier at a Dollar Store and decides to seek out an old boyfriend for help. Mike managed to rise above his poor beginnings and is now a doctor. When Margie meets Mike again, cultures clash and drama, along with some comedy, follows. Good People will open on February 1 in Arena’s Kreeger Theater and play through March 10, 2013.
What drew Jackie to the play? “I don’t read a lot of contemporary plays that are really dealing with the issues that are all around us,” she explained. “We’re talking about class here; we’re talking about class in America, the ever widening gulf between the 99 percent and the one percent. This play deals with this but it deals with it in such a smart way. I felt it was authentic; I thought it had great heart.” And while Jackie feels there is a lot of “great humor” in the play, it still “really packs a punch.”
Jackie describes Margie as someone “living on the edge as many people are in North America.” Although the play is set in Boston, Jackie believes the story resonates with those living in almost any city. “There are a couple of places in Canada where it’s now playing to great success,” she said.
Jackie Maxwell and Molly Smith have had a mutual admiration society going since they met in Canada 30 years ago. “Molly and I are old friends,” she said. “I knew her when she ran [the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska]. We were both developing new plays and we saw eye-to-eye on a lot of stuff. Fast forward to present day, I’m now running the Shaw Festival and she’s running Arena. We are always talking and enjoy each other’s work and respect each other’s work.”
Their collaboration takes place in both locations, with Molly also directing at the Shaw Festival. “I was starting to do musicals on our main stage and I called Molly because I really admire what she does with American musicals, how she is able to refresh and reinvigorate pieces,” she said. “She has been with us twice, the last time with My Fair Lady which she reinvented here at Arena.”
After Jackie signed on to direct Good People, casting the roles became her primary focus. The first casting call was in Washington, “because it’s very important for Arena that local actors are being hired,” said Jackie. Four of the six roles were filled with local talent. “Then we went to New York and that’s where we found Margie, Johanna Day.”
Day had played the role of Margie at the Huntington Theater in Boston, a fact that initially made Jackie pause. “If an actress has played a part, you kind of think, mmm,” she said. Johanna impressed Jackie during her reading and told her that the character of Margie was “so rich that she didn’t feel she had gotten to the bottom of her.” Also, this time around, Johanna is surrounded with a different group, including Andrew Long, “a wonderful actor,” as the doctor who managed to escape Southie. Other cast members include Francesca Choy-Kee, Michael Glenn, Rosemary Knower, and Amy McWilliams.
Frances McDormand, won a Tony Award for her performance as Margie in the Manhattan Theater Club’s 2011 production. Although Jackie said she is a “huge admirer” of McDormand, she’s now glad she wasn’t able to see the New York production. “When you are directing a play, you want to come in and work your way through it yourself with your actors,” she explained. “I don’t want the other person’s vision in my head. If a play is good enough, it can take a lot of interpretations and versions.”
Besides directing Good People, Jackie is busy programming for the Shaw Festival’s ten-play season which runs from April to October. Three weeks after she returns to Canada, she will direct George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara. Although the festival’s mandate is to do plays by Shaw and his contemporaries, Jackie enjoys mixing in musicals and more recent plays. The 2013 season includes Guys and Dolls, The Light in the Piazza, Enchanted April, and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. “I like a lot of diversity in the programming,” she said. “People can go to a fun musical in the afternoon and then go to something that attacks your brain more that night. We have four different theater spaces and we program in repertory which means we always have at least half a dozen plays playing all the time.”
The Shaw Festival is located in “a beautiful area,” Niagara-on-the Lake, Ontario, about 45 minutes from Buffalo and about an hour from Toronto. “It’s wine country, so it’s a lovely place for people to visit,” she said. Forty percent of the Shaw’s audience is American. “A lot of patrons of Arena go up to the Shaw,” she said. “I was surprised by the too-ing and fro-ing. People are on the move.”
Rehearsing six hours a day, Jackie said she still hoped to spend some time playing tourist. “I went to the film Lincoln recently and so I feel compelled to go and wander around those monuments again,” she said. “I love food. I’m eager to get out and visit a few restaurants.” She also hoped to see the National Ballet of Canada’s Alice in Wonderland at the Kennedy Center. And, of course, she planned to be on the Mall for the inauguration. “It’s a wonderful coincidence to be here at that time,” she said.
Top Photo of Jackie Maxwell by David Cooper
Photo of Johanna Day in Good People by Scott Suchman
February 1 through March 10, 2013
1101 6th Street, SW
The Shaw Festival