In a tough world, it helps to be tougher. The characters in Good People have constructed defensive shells, and their hardness is tested in a story that's moving, funny and complex. Watching a top-notch company of actors reveal what lies beneath those shells, and why, is a powerful theater experience. Northern Stage's production of David Lindsay-Abaire's play, winner of the 2011 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, crackles with tension spiked with humor.
All of the characters grew up in South Boston's blue-collar, Irish-Catholic neighborhood. Mike climbed every rung of the ladder out of it, from college to a medical degree to a house in tony Chestnut Hill. A teen pregnancy left Margy stuck behind: She's a single mother with a disabled child, barely surviving on her wages as a dollar-store cashier. The play opens as her supervisor is forced to fire her.
Margy is able to look the possibility of homelessness in the eye and throw her best punch. She strategizes with her friend Jean, jokes about her grim alternatives and sets out to find a job. She's going to need it soon, because her landlady, Dottie, can't afford to wait for the rent. But Margy is not someone to count out. She has survived so far, and she has some life left in her. The play explores the lengths to which she'll go.
Mike, the successful doctor, was Margy's boyfriend in high school. He might give her a job, or help her find one, particularly if she hauls out a skeleton from his closet — or invents one. When Margy finagles an invitation to a party at his house and meets his wife, Kate, she finds a rickety marriage to prey on. Now Margy has to decide if she can bring herself to use every last bit of leverage on Mike. And he has to face what it's cost him to leave his roots behind.
Like a St. Patrick's Day pint glass layered with pale ale and dark stout, this play has two elements. One is an examination of how accident, luck or merit can provide the freedom to break out of America's economic class structure. The other is the story of particular characters, which can slip toward a sentimental heroism for Margy that reduces the play to a feel-good comedy if the darker context is lost.
Director Carol Dunne wisely gets the sweet and sour just right, and gives us real people to root for and real reasons to see them in a hard-bitten social context. She lets the humor define character rather than stand in for it, and shapes performances that convey the human consequences of financial pressures.
This cast is polished, and all six members go beyond their ample craft skills to invest their roles with depth and nuance. No one hides behind a big Bawston accent, or lets the naturalistic dialogue do all the work. Watching the company fill the play with life is exhilarating.
Humor in Good People is variously a weapon, a defense and a welcome relief. When Margy visits Mike's home, the reluctant host stiffly asks, "How's the wine?" and Margy takes a sip and replies, "How the fuck would I know?" No matter how they mask it, Mike and Margy are always moving between combativeness and vulnerability. Mike has his new life to defend, while Margy prides herself on absorbing life's blows. Asking for help is hard; refusing to give it is just as tough.
Catherine Doherty's hawk-eyed stare gives Margy an abiding defiance, even in defeat. Her wisecracking manner is so confident, you almost fail to notice that she loses just about every battle she undertakes. Doherty doesn't waste any time on giving Margy a hero's halo, and lets her humor bubble up without bitterness. Her story already elicits sympathy, but Doherty's performance makes it captivating.
Dorothy Stanley (Dottie) and Charis Leos (Jean) are fine foils for Margy. Both actors have exquisite timing and show admirable restraint in roles that could easily lurch into comic caricature. Director Dunne and these two performers don't bury the characters under their quirks. Leos uncovers Jean's stunning self-assurance, and Stanley shows Dottie's greed as unavoidable self-interest.
As Mike, Christian Kohn addresses all the facets of a complex role. He doesn't just reveal Mike's vulnerability; he shows Mike's active effort to vanquish it as he collects himself time and again. The character still has a little Southie belligerence simmering beneath his educated, upper-middle-class manner. As Kohn moves between these poles, he keeps us in stark suspense about how Mike will use the strength that got him where he is today.
Barrett Doss plays Mike's wife, Kate, an African American woman born to privilege. Doss conveys the warmth and hospitality that come easily only to the financially secure. When Kate complains of being mistaken for the nanny of her own child, Doss delicately shows how the badges of class and entitlement can be tough to read today. But they're no less intractable. Margy doesn't belong. Kate does. And Doss' Kate will prove it if she must.
Set designer Bill Clarke uses a single backdrop to give all the Southie locations a unified abstraction. It spans the back of the stage with the textured scrap materials of a crumbling neighborhood: rusting metal, distressed ceiling tin, false brick, dilapidated shingles. The jumble of materials is a wonderful distillation of the hardscrabble streets. It's also unsettlingly beautiful. The color palette is so appealing that Southie seems to have the prettiest sunsets on earth. After Southie's comforting color, Mike's well-appointed home is not as sharp a transition as it might be, though the space and furnishings signal affluence.
Evan Prizant's costumes hit obvious notes to show rich and poor, but they miss the chance to add another layer to each character's protective shell. The costuming relies on bad taste (Jean's loud prints) or sloppiness (Margy's slapdash sportswear) to define poverty. Wealthy Kate and Mike have clothes that convey no special vanity or sense of self. The costumes don't fail the characters, but they don't pinpoint them, either.
The subtle, confident performances in this production bring us face-to-face with fascinating characters, many of whom we might quickly overlook in real life. Mike, the defensive striver who's rejected his past, doesn't deserve his good fortune. Margy, the resilient, salt-of-the-earth struggler, doesn't deserve her hard knocks. No invisible hand makes it right. Pride is the armor Southie taught them both to adopt; it may protect them from each other, but it can't ward off the faceless enemy of economic disparity. All it can do is preserve the need to fight.