Steppenwolf’s timing is either fortuitous or prescient. The company’s Chicago premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire’s incisive 2011 drama, in a blazingly truthful production helmed by ensemble member K. Todd Freeman, should be required viewing for every Rand-revering partisan, professional or amateur, who’s crowed against President Obama’s suggestion that no one in this country truly succeeds on his or her own—reduced, with context excised, to the “You didn’t build that” sound bite.
In one fearsome second-act monologue, Lindsay-Abaire’s hard-bitten antiheroine Margie (Mariann Mayberry at her flintiest and fieriest), a South Boston woman struggling to care for herself and an adult daughter with severe developmental disabilities on minimum wages, lays out in a righteous for-want-of-a-nail tale just how little agency the poor truly have in our society. One of our real-life presidential contenders says half the country refuses to take responsibility for their lives; Margie embodies the counterargument laid out by Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein: The 47 percent aren’t shirking responsibility, they’re drowning in it.
Lindsay-Abaire’s tightly plotted script, which has Margie seeking out the former flame who got out of Southie and is now a wealthy doctor, confronts class mobility efficiently and cleverly, managing to be provocative without feeling manipulative. Mayberry’s surrounded by nuanced, thoughtful performances, including Alana Arenas’s carefully measured turn as the doctor’s comfortable wife and Lusia Strus’s steamroller take on Margie’s mouthy best friend. Perhaps the only thing marring Freeman’s staging is a minor doozy: An intrusively jaunty music cue as the final scene fades suggests a more hopeful ending than Margie’s found, leaving a sour, sitcom-y aftertaste to an otherwise honest production.