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Regional Reviews: Chicago

Good People
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Also see John's reviews of I Love Lucy Live on Stage and Jitney

Will Allan, Molly Regan, Lusia Strus and
Mariann Mayberry

It's possible I may have seen a play or film that deals with class differences in America as powerfully as does director K. Todd Freeman's production of David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People. If I have, though, whatever play or film it was might have been dislodged from my brain after seeing this knockout production. And, even if there is an earlier play that addresses the issue of economic disparity as well as this one does, it's not likely to be as contemporary as Good People, which takes on issues like class differences in access to health care and affordable day care, wage stagnation and limited availability of good paying jobs. In fact, in the midst of the current Presidential campaign's discussion of class warfare and the recent disclosure of Mitt Romney's now-infamous remark about the "47%," you could swear Steppenwolf might have added this show to their season just this past Tuesday.

There's no doubt whose side Lindsay-Abaire takes in Good People. He has created a story about a 48-year-old working-class woman in South Boston who's just lost her low-paying job at a dollar store and, in trying to network for a new job, reaches out to the old high-school boyfriend who made it into the upper-middle class. Margaret (Mariann Mayberry) is a single mom to a developmentally disabled adult daughter, supporting the two of them on an hourly salary of less than $10 per hour. When she loses her job at the dollar store due to chronic tardiness (caused by the tardiness of the caregiver for her daughter), she doesn't have much time to find a new position. One of her friends, Jean (Lusia Strus), has run into Margaret's high school boyfriend Mike (Keith Kupferer), who's now a successful physician and suggests Margaret ask Mike about a job.

Why was Mike able to escape from the poverty of South Boston while Margaret remains trapped in it? Where are those vaunted American bootstraps she could have pulled herself up by? Lindsay-Abaire makes the case for Margaret quite explicitly, much of it in a confrontation between Mike and Margaret late in the play. Revealing any more would be to spoil the plot, but just as importantly would make Good People sound like agitprop rather than the richly textured, measured and even-handed and realistically human drama that it is. And, one that is as entertaining and funny as it is impactful.

What makes Good People so much more than a political or sociological statement (or perhaps such an effective socio-political statement) is the detail with which the characters are drawn—and credit for that is due in equal measure to the writer, the director, and every member of this six-person cast. Four of the characters—Margaret, Jean, their friend (and Margaret's landlady) Dottie and the dollar-store manager Stevie (whose late mother had been a pal of the other three)—are all residents of "Southie," the lower-class white Irish-American Boston neighborhood in which Lindsay-Abaire grew up. We feel for them, but we don't pity them. They're tough, self-respecting people doing the best they can under the circumstances, and are as honest and self-aware as most, which is to say not always entirely so. This production brings them alive so fully and sympathetically that we're on their side.

Margaret is tough as nails and a survivor to be sure, but is frightened to death by her current circumstances of unemployment. She visibly fights the temptation to feel like a victim, and clearly doesn't want to feel or be seen as such. Mayberry captures all of these sides of Margaret and makes her an unforgettable character. Her pal Jean is equally tough and is a hard-edged rock for Margaret to lean on in an absolutely perfect performance by Lusia Strus. Molly Regan is effective comic relief as the aptly named Dottie, but is the most self-centered of the bunch. Will Allan is especially convincing as Stevie, the young manager who has to fire Margaret but remains concerned about her welfare.

Lindsay-Abaire is no less nuanced in creating the well-to-do characters of Mike and his wife Kate. Kate is an upper-class African American from the Georgetown section of Washington D.C. and, though she's firmly ensconced in that world, not unsympathetic or unkind to Margaret. Alana Arenas clearly creates a picture of this woman who comes from a very specific place and maybe in ways that are not at all what we might expect. As Mike, Keith Kupferer lets us see the rough background Mike grew up in along with the pretensions and manners that are expected in the polite society in which he now circulates. Margaret's return to his life after 30 years is clearly stressful for him, though he initially hides that, and Kupferer does a skillful job of letting that tension rise to the surface.

Freeman, an accomplished actor who has more acting than directing credits on his resume, has assembled this production with impeccable skill. He sets a tone of earthiness and humanity that seems exactly right to communicate the author's ideas, which is executed perfectly by his cast. They get laughs from the simplest, most subtle readings of short lines that reveal the underlying plain-spoken wisdom and honesty of the characters.

The theatrically realistic performances are played out on a series of detailed sets by Walt Spangler that include the alley behind the dollar store, Margaret's dingy apartment, a Catholic school gym, and the elegant suburban home of Mike and Kate. Nan Cibula-Jenkins' costumes also serve to help establish the characters and their socio-economic statuses.

As he did in his play and screenplay for Rabbit Hole, Lindsay-Abaire gives us decent people trying to deal reasonably with impossibly hard situations that are by and large not of their own making. It's easier to believe we have some control over the events of our lives—that if bad things happen, the people affected must in some way have been responsible for either causing or not preventing the calamity. Lindsay-Abaire shows in Rabbit Hole how difficult it is accept that things don't always work like that. In Good People, the writer goes a step further to posit that the good outcomes people enjoy are not always entirely of their own making, either. Circumstances beyond our control frequently affect our lives for better or worse. Bad things happen to "good people," and good things happen to ... let's just say to "people." Life may not be as random as the church bingo games that Margaret, Jean, Dottie and Stevie play, but neither is it completely a matter or predictable causes and effects.

Good People will play in Steppenwolf's downstairs theater at 1650 N. Halsted St., through November 11, 2012. For ticket information, visit the Box Office, or call 312-335-1650.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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