Arts Listings

McGoldrick’s ‘Countercoup’ at S.F. Marsh

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday October 05, 2007

I’m fascinated by why some succeed, and why some struggle with life,” said Alameda County Deputy Public Defender and Berkeley resident Mark McGoldrick, “why similarly situated people do differently, even from the same family. Why do some make it and some have a harder time? It’s one of the mysteries of life. Why does one kid from East Oakland make it to Julliard and others never get out of the ‘hood? How do you describe it? Is it luck? The will to live? It’s unquantifiable.” 

McGoldrick was reflecting on the bigger questions behind his own new solo show, Countercoup, directed by David Ford, now playing at The Marsh in San Francisco through Oct. 20. 

Countercoup is “semiautobiographical,” the story of a young man from a white middle-class family in rehabilitation from an accident that paralyzed him, the friendship he makes with a man from the ghetto, paralyzed from a gunshot wound, and what happens to them both on re-entry into the real world, how their “lives end up in different places.” 

McGoldrick says the model for the principal character of his tale is himself as a teenager and young man, an at-risk youth from “a loving family” in Arizona leading a “don’t-tell-me-what-to-do lifestyle—typical: alcohol, drugs, being a jerk—and progressively getting into more trouble,” including breaking his hands twice in fistfights, getting suspended from school, until finally breaking his neck in a car accident during Christmas 1982 at age 17. 

Now the former angry young man finds himself defending other angry young men in court. “It’s interesting how the roles are reversed, now that I’m the seasoned graybeard, trying to counsel those bent on self-destruction. Generations keep coming up, and continue to do strange stuff.” 

After his accident and hospitalization, McGoldrick went through rehabilitation, “like a bootcamp,” eventually getting discharged to his waiting parents’ care. “It was frustrating. I couldn’t do anything. But at least my family was around to abuse!”  

McGoldrick enrolled in the local community college, then later at the state university. “Before, I wasn’t sure about going. College wasn’t interesting. But once I’d broken my neck, and couldn’t do the things I wanted to do, it seemed obvious college was a first step. I’d go for the thinking jobs.” He graduated from Harvard Law School, then clerked for a Federal judge in San Diego, before taking the job he still holds after 13 years with the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office and moving to Berkeley. “I like the climate, where it is on the bay,” said McGoldrick, “the ambiance, the mix of people.” 

His work as a deputy public defender brings him into immediate contact with those who “live in a different America than I live in. The clients I meet coming through the criminal justice system; that’s our point of contact, where the most resources ever invested in them are used to punish them. I start with that as the defendant’s reality.” 

“Some are the working poor,” he continued, “None have enough to pay for a private attorney. They have no health insurance; they go to the emergency room for health care. Some wait to get their dental work done in prison. Their probation reports, a kind of bio of five or 10 pages, often read like a Stephen King story. I look at their background, read through—and ask, what did we think was going to happen to this kid? Anything other than what did? It reads like a recipe for making a criminal defendant.” 

“What do we do? Catch them, put our hands on hips and say, ‘For shame!’? There’re no chances for shame—say, for a prostitute on San Pablo Avenue—and as if it’s not it’s own hell.” 

He reflected further on his job and on the system he works in: “It’s emotionally hard work, and often comes from the soul when terrible, terrible things go awry in the industry of pain I work in. But I like what I do. I believe in it. I’m proud of my office. There’s a world of choices of what I could be doing, could get paid for somewhere else. I have an immense amount of pride to be working as a public defender rather than a private attorney. I feel that’s on a public service model.” 

Countercoup is partly a straight-ahead cautionary story, which ends in an epiphany the character has when it’s almost too late about how he’s been messing up, and half buddy story, McGoldrick said.  

“He and his new friend meet in the hospital and go through the same process together, but end up in different places. The new friend is a blue collar guy who never thought about going to college; it wasn’t in the cards,” he said. “The buddy gets out, moves into substandard subsidized housing, with miscreant attendants who sometimes show up, sometimes leave him to sleep in his wheelchair all night. One life goes into a bad place, the other is lifted up. And the character based on me sees himself abandoning his buddy, where the audience might not. I like telling stories, not creating messages in that way. I prefer it if people afterwards, over a drink or dinner, have different opinions. That’s fine with me. It’s more the way I think life is.” 

McGoldrick’s reticence about message-mongering is reflected in how he gets his points across on stage: “The buddy gets upset when he sees my character, ensconced in privilege, tear off the head of a nurse’s aide. So social ideas are shown through dramatic interchange. There’s a lot of dark stuff, but it’s also funny. It’s graphic; people wince, then laugh, feel comic relief, in the spirit of the public defender’s sense of humor.” 



8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Oct. 20 at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St.,  

San Francisco. Tickets: (800) 838-3006. Information: (415) 826-5750 or