Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's review of Faceless
Good People is a gripping drama, from something as mundane as the want-ads. And in the first scene of director Stephanie Merritt's staging, at the venerable Kirkwood Theatre Guild, it all comes down to dollars and cents. Or, more specifically, a dollar-fifteen. Margaret (or "Margie," played by the vastly underappreciated Margeau Baue Steinau) is being fired from her job, in a private moment out behind a dollar store, ostensibly for being late too often. But from her point of view, it's because she's finally made it up to $9.20 an hour, becoming all too replaceable in the tightly, ruthlessly calculated modern retail economy. In her emphatic, insistent way, she offers to take a big pay cut, just to stay on in a job that nobody really wants.
It doesn't work, but Margie's got game, and she's pugnaciousness throughout, clawing her way through the struggle of life, and making it impossible to turn away. Her mistakes are all "good mistakes," or at least the kind she's willing to take the blame for. In Ms. Steinau's chameleonic performance, she is a lovable "extremophile," genetically engineered to survive the toughest environments on the planet. Long after computers have stopped managing dollar stores, there will still be Margies from Southie, dotting the landscape like lichen or arctic penguins.
Of course, the store is not literally managed, on the ground, by computer in the story's proscribed year of 2010. Zach Venturella plays her boss, and like everyone else in Southie, Margie knows his story intimatelymaking the remaining social fabric of Southie her only hope of keeping her job. It's an excellent production, top to bottom, and Mr. Venturella is likewise strong in his performance. In that scene, Ms. Steinau sports long, curly schoolgirl hair, in what may be a part of a catalog of at least four or five funny, heartbreaking fertility references. In fact, the climactic scene involves a pair of ex-lovers smashing one another's fertility symbols to smithereens, which is just plain awesome.
But generally, Good People (by the author of another amazing play, Fuddy Meers) is painfully, deeply endearing. Kudos, also, to the Kirkwood Theatre Guild for putting on a play that isn't squeaky clean in its plot or its use of modern dialog. This used to be a big issue behind the scenes, and still seems to be for the other company that shares the space in the summer months. Jan Meyer plays Margie's landlady, and thanks to her we get a glimpse inside the duplicitous mind of a duplex-owner whose own son is growing desperate for a place to live.
But then it turns out there's this whole other world, as in many great storieslike the Land of Oz or El Dorado, or Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factoryor, in this case, the Boston suburb of Chestnut Hill, where Margie's old highschool boyfriend now lives, having escaped the stranglehold of poverty: Tim Callahan, a dedicated local performer, year in and year out, is excellent as Mike. With his help as leading man, Good People becomes a real human struggle between two high school sweethearts who've grown far apart, as the second act kicks into high gear.
Patrice Foster plays his long-suffering wife, a kindhearted literature teacher at Brown University. And, though that character (Kate) seemed like one of those frozen goddesses in the play's 2013 local debut at the Repertory Theatre, Ms. Foster gives us some much needed warmth in the role. It actually heightens the drama later on: as the old Southie tensions flare between Margie and Mike, in a beautiful modern living room. Their big confrontation is complete with overturned furniture, impossibly high stakes and (like any good mystery) at least one good skeleton in the closet. There are clever reversals, and a seemingly unstoppable energy that's choked-off by Ms. Foster's unexpected comings and goings. As tense as the show was beforehand, there's something screaming inside this scene, though voices are rarely raised.
Mary Robert is adorable as Jean, one of Margie's lifelong pals, laying the groundwork for their reality in a backwater part of the economy, along with Ms. Meyer as Dottie. Ms. Robert gives us a character that seems unintentionally hilarious, with a big silent-comedy face. It's probably the minimal, working-class make-up, and the usual flattening effect of stage lighting, that gives her an Arbuckle, or Keaton-esque, visage (combined, for comical effect, with that outlandish Boston accent). Like Ms. Steinau's, it is an indelible performance.
There's no magic solution at the end, to the problems of Margie's life. Despite her comical efforts (crashing a party, with awful results) it is her own good-heartedness that makes a theatrically happy ending impossible. But there is a moment of grace in her final scene. And that's when we learn that, no matter how unforgiving the world of business and markets and income stratification may be (and they are historically bad), it is the spiritual economy of their own small world that somehow remains intact.
Through January 28, 2018, at the Robert G. Reim Theatre, 111 South Geyer (on the south end of the Kirkwood Recreation Center), Kirkwood MO. For more information visit www.ktg-onstage.org/