Also see Nancy's review of The Motherf**cker with the Hat
Boston is known for its distinctive neighborhoods; from Beacon Hill and its Brahmins, to the Italian-flavored North End, to the South End with its high percentage of the city's LGBT population, and the predominantly working class Irish-American South Boston region, to mention but a few. What they all have in common is the outsider's perception that everyone who lives there is cut from the same cloth. South Boston's cross to bear is the reputation earned during the 1970s when it fostered opposition to court-mandated school desegregation by busing, leaving many with the impression that it is a racist neighborhood. More recently, Whitey Bulger, Southie's most famous organized crime figure, has been all over the news after being apprehended following sixteen years as a fugitive.
I have never set foot in South Boston and, as the saying goes, all I know is what I read in the papers. However, playwright Lindsay-Abaire, who grew up there, has brushed aside the stereotypes and clichés about his hometown, digging deeper to draw attention to the stories of normal people and their everyday struggles. His play and the Huntington Theatre production create a sense of place and offer a vivid depiction of the good people of the neighborhood who work hard, cling to their values, remain loyal to their community, and hope for a little bit of luck at the weekly bingo game.
Luck just happens to be one of the themes that Lindsay-Abaire explores in Good People, as Margie (pronounced with a hard "g") is down on hers and desperately seeking a positive change in fortune. For various reasons, she and her cronies Jean (MacDonald) and Dottie (Carroll) have remained in the old neighborhood, but they know people who have gotten out and moved on. When Margie loses another in a string of bottom of the barrel jobs, she seeks out her old high school flame Mike (Michael Laurence), a successful physician living in Chestnut Hill, thinking he might be able to hire her or refer her to someone else for employment.
Margie is the proverbial fish out of water when she steps into Mike's world, first in his contemporary glass and oak office and later in his comfortable suburban home with his beautiful, young African-American wife Kate (Rachael Holmes). Lindsay-Abaire starkly contrasts their lives before breaking down the steps of the journey they each took from the same starting point to end up in such disparate circumstances. However, Margie contends that they didn't have the same start. Mike had parents who watched out for him and he had choices that were not available to her. He may have come from poverty, but hers was worse and she won't let him get away with patting himself on the back for escaping it. Mike does his best Romney-like rant about those who make the wrong choices, but Margie verbally strikes him in the solar plexus with the allegation that he was just lucky that things turned out the way they did for him.
Director Kate Whoriskey, a graduate of the American Repertory Theater's Institute for Advanced Theater Training, grew up in Acton. Her memories of visits to South Boston for the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade inform her work, providing her with insight into the culture of the community. She creates palpable tension in the pivotal scene where Margie reveals Mike's secrets in front of his wife, widening the already existing rift between them. Her direction is filled with nuance, making good use of pauses, silence and glances to impart greater impact to the spoken words.
As the central figure, Day's performance is compelling, but not showy. Her discomfort and desperation are keenly felt, but she is well-defended by her sardonic humor and she projects an inner dignity. Carroll is her crotchety landlady who speaks her mind and makes extra money doing crafts and watching Margie's disabled adult daughter during the day. Adorned with a red wig, MacDonald is brash and devilish, forcefully encouraging Margie to wring what she can from Mike. It's hard to believe that this is the first time in their careers that Carroll and MacDonald have shared the stage, but their chemistry has been worth the wait. They almost steal the show.
When we first meet Mike in his office, Laurence gives us little to go on to figure him out beyond the outer trappings, but he sheds the façade bit by bit in the second act. As his dissembling becomes evident, he maneuvers like a rat in a maze, growing more agitated as he is unable to extricate himself from his web of deceit. Holmes is relegated to looking stunned or incredulous much of the time, but has her moments to show assertiveness and strength of character. Nick Westrate (Stevie) is featured as the unfortunate messenger who has to fire Margie from her job at the dollar store, but he captures Stevie's ambivalence and frustration, and ultimately becomes her guardian mensch.
Alexander Dodge has designed five distinct scenes to enhance the sense of place: the grimy loading dock where Stevie confronts Margie; her dark-paneled kitchen, badly in need of updating, where the three friends convene over coffee; the bingo hall festooned with construction paper chains and fluorescent lights; and Mike's office and smartly-appointed living room. Lighting Designer Matthew Richards uses dim or harsh lighting for the Southie locales and warm, complementary effects for Mike's spaces. The class distinctions are further conveyed by Ilona Somogyi's costume designs. Original music and sound design are by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen.
Good People boldly affirms that neither class nor economic status is the arbiter of goodness in people. Lindsay-Abaire uses the play to highlight the similarities against the bas relief of the differences between two cultures. His writing is smart and funny, allowing us to clearly see the drama in these characters' lives and laugh despite it. After all the trials and tribulations, he leaves Margie with hope that things will work out as long as she remains true to herself in the best Southie tradition.
Good People, performances through October 14, Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org. Written by David Lindsay-Abaire, Directed by Kate Whoriskey; Scenic Design, Alexander Dodge; Costume Design, Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design, Matthew Richards; Original Music & Sound Design, Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen; Casting, Alaine Alldaffer; Production Stage Manager, Marti McIntosh; Stage Manager, Kathryn Most Cast (in order of appearance): Johanna Day, Nick Westrate, Nancy E. Carroll, Karen MacDonald, Michael Laurence, Rachael Holmes